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Why Fundamental Shifts in Thinking Take Longer Than You Think

by Mark Donovan
February 20, 2014

Why Fundamental Shifts in Thinking Take Longer Than You Think

by Mark Donovan
February 20, 2014 | Comments (2)

We started our lean journey at Wooden Ships in the spring of 2007 after I read The Toyota Way. The book so clearly described our flawed batch and queue production processes and then miraculously proposed a set of practices to remedy the situation. So I proceeded to run an experiment.

I took a simple label sewing operation that had previously only yielded 120-140 pieces per day (embarrassing, I know) and redesigned the process so items would flow through one piece at a time. The process yielded over 350 pieces the first day! I was sold on this new way of working.

Next I read Learning to See, which was equally mind-blowing, so I proceeded to stop our factory for two weeks to rearrange the workflow from silos to cells and watched lead-times drop from months to weeks. The new structure started surfacing problems that could not be ignored. I became obsessed with reducing batch sizes, creating flow, and stopping to fix problems. When team members would store "problems" in boxes under the tables, I banned boxes on the line. When those "problems" moved to the table tops, I removed tables and other places where "problems" could be hidden. “5 Why's” became our de facto problem solving methodology.

I then read every piece of literature on Lean that I could find. I turned off the "information systems" in the factory and watched lead-times plummet further from weeks to days as materials flowed faster with simple hand written kanbans. I asked a set of simples questions every time I came to the line and found a problem (which was every time I came to the line):

  1. Is there a standard? If not, create one!
  2. Is there a defined process that will allow us to achieve that standard? If not, create one!
  3. Is the process being followed? If yes, improve it. If not, follow it.

All of these things yielded phenomenal results and the business strengthened in ways we never dreamed possible. Yet all the time I realized that I was driving the change from the top which is not the most effective approach nor sustainable. And there’s only so much low hanging fruit, too.

So as I departed with my family this year for our annual ski trip, I left my leadership team with some homework. I asked them to read The Toyota Way and watch Gemba Academy videos on lean fundamentals. And here’s the thing: Something incredible happened. Team members started to embrace the concepts and apply them in ways they never had and in ways I hadn’t. They organized daily meetings to discuss the concepts they had just studied and applied concepts to problems they experienced on the line. They made lean principles and tools their own.

I have been teaching and preaching lean fundamentals since 2007, but it’s taken until now for these ideas to really start to sink in with our team leaders. Just as I needed 5 years of struggle before these ideas resonated with me in a way that was actionable (I hope it’s less for you), my team members also needed a gestation period before they were able to embrace a new way of thinking. So what I have learned? My take away from our experience at Wooden Ships is that while the fundamentals should be taught from the start, if they don't sink in right way, don't despair. It just might not be the right time yet.

If I could go back and do it again would I do it the same way? Who knows. It took that learning curve to get my team members and I to where we are today. Maybe the only thing I’d do differently is practice more deeply within the model line to create an even more visible and focused example of the lean fundamentals in action. We are finally starting to feel contractions and are looking forward to the birth of a company culture that fully embraces lean fundamentals.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  leadership
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kevin kobett February 20, 2014


Nice article. However, I believe a fundamental shift in thinking takes longer than you think. In his book, The Achieving Socity, David McClelland contands a society must tell stories of achievement to its children before it can advance economically. One of my favorite team's accomplishments was initiated by a member's daughter, so I believe McClelland is spot on.

The process is similar to computer training. When PCs were introduced to the workplace, adults struggled to adapt. The IT deptartment always told us to turn the PC off and on. When PCs became affordable and made it into households, kids learned fast. Soon they were helping their parents. Now toddlers use computers. I cannot imagine what they will be capable of as adults.

Encouraging your employees to tell lean success stories to their children will give you a great future competitive advantage. Company towns will make a comeback. This time the advantage will be intellectual.

Reply »

Mark Donovan February 20, 2014


Thanks for your great comments!   Sharing lean success stories with our next generation of leaders is the type of long-term thinking that has served Toyota and others so well.   I will encourage my employees to share their success stories with their children, colleagues and others in our community!

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