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What Experience Tells Me About How Change Happens

by Dave LaHote
November 12, 2014

What Experience Tells Me About How Change Happens

by Dave LaHote
November 12, 2014 | Comments (15)

25 years ago I had the great fortune to be in an organization that was one of the early US based suppliers to Toyota in Georgetown Kentucky. We received training and help from both our Japanese joint venture partner and Toyota. Their help was aimed at making us a more successful supplier using their time-tested methods commonly referred to as the Toyota Production System. 

We were not trying to become “Lean” or undergo a “Lean Transformation”; we just wanted to be a better supplier and a more successful company. The help we received was primarily aimed at the shop floor. Some of it was very structured and exact in nature, like how to build a work cell based on one-piece flow and how to connect different process steps using kanban. Other help we received was less formal and structured like using material and information flow maps (later to be known as value stream maps) to better understand processes. Or how to present the results of our problem solving efforts and the improvements we managed to make in our Quality Circle teams in a PDCA storyboard format (later to be better know as A3).

As I reflect on our learning process I see some stark differences between how we improved and learned versus the approach I see most often taken today.

Today I see a great emphasis on what I will call highly technical, overly mechanical tool usage with little discipline on the actual building of work cells and connecting cells with good flow systems. (It seems that the hard shop floor manufacturing processes are getting less attention than the lean tools). I see the same thing in places like healthcare where there’s more emphasis on value stream mapping than actually improving the quality of patient care.

Over the last 20 years or so we’ve created new job descriptions like “lean facilitator” and “process improvement black belt.” These people use the highly refined tools like value stream maps complete with dedicated software in order to make sure they have a “proper” value stream map. We seem to believe (or hope) that creating highly trained specialists using complicated, sophisticated tools in the pursuit of becoming lean will actually make organizations better. This just seems so far away from what I experienced. 

What was my experience? We drew value stream maps with pencil and paper in a few minutes and it was done by the people who did the work. Our purpose for doing it in this manner was to create a common understanding of how our processes worked. In addition, since many of our Japanese mentors didn’t speak English and none of us spoke Japanese, pictures, drawings, and schematics were the only way for us to communicate and reach common understanding.  PDCA storyboards were done by the people who did the work (and again, done in pencil to help and illustrate our willingness to make changes and keep refining the problem solving process). Every storyboard was different because ever problem was different. The tools we used were designed to be used by the production workers to help them better understand their own work processes, to see waste, and to see opportunities for improvement. 

As I reflect, I think that the approach that our Japanese partners used to teach us TPS/Lean increased the capability of everyone in the organization: front line workers, supervisors, and managers. We all became increasingly better at making improvements and solving problems using simple, common sense, everyday tools.

This became the way we did work, not some extra work to do.

As I remember it, our biggest challenge was to help management to catch up with the learning that was happening on our front lines. We (the managers) always seemed to be behind! Rather than spending enough time on the front lines, like so many managers today, we tended to come up with highly structured forms and formats… This was our way of trying to take a shortcut on learning. We wanted to make things easy for us to understand so we could look informed and intelligent. Often, if I’m really honest, we just weren’t willing to spend the time we needed to spend on the shop floor going to see, asking why, and showing respect for the people who really knew the most about the work because they were doing it all day. 

I remember us trying to take shortcuts with lean departments and lean specialists, too. So, you guessed it, lean became the latest improvement program rather than a fundamentally different way for the organization to behave and learn. My experience was that the worker-based, pencil and paper, simple tools learning organizations in our company always outpaced the expert led, highly technical approaches in terms of true business performance and increased competitiveness. And more than this, our organizations that were rooted in learning by all employees created real sustainability: the kind that allows you to innovate (by solving problems) over time, even when the market or the management team changes.

We struggled then as so many lean practitioners struggle today to do this stuff well. But I think organizations would do better today if they remembered these basics: 

  1. Give the front line workers simple, easy-to-use methods to better see and understand the processes in which they work (not computerized, standardized format, black-belt required, elegant tools).
  2. Give frontline workers the responsibility to improve their jobs and solve problems; don’t delegate this part of the job to experts or other staff. 
  3. Have managers take the time to learn with workers by going to see where the work is really done, by asking why rather than asking for report-outs and updates, and by showing respect for their fellow workers by asking them to solve their own problems. 

I think we might have better success if we stopped worrying about making a “Lean Transformation” and focused on getting better business results by solving problems at their source and ever improving our ability to deliver value to our customers in an effective and efficient manner.

What do you think? 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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15 Comments | Post a Comment
Brenda Kenefick November 12, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment
I think you hit the nail on the head. We need to remember impactful and aligned rather than pretty and perfect.
I see a focus on making Lean ideas easier to understand rather than respect for people and the knowledge that understanding comes with application. We need to ask ourselves everyday if we are solving problems and building knowledge or are we focused on implementing a tool. The first helps an organization to improve, the second may, but many tend to see more work associated with the tool and lose focus on what we are trying to do. The risk is the tool is not associated with improvements but with more work.
We can'l lose sight of the fundamentals.


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Dave LaHote November 12, 2014
Thanks Brenda.  I absolutly agree.

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Ken Hunt November 12, 2014
Dave,

Thanks for mentioning the use of pencil and paper. It drives me crazy when I see someone asking for an "electronic" way to do a Value Stream Map, Process Map, etc. If those drawing the map don't go to the Gemba to see what REALLY is happening, a huge learning opportunity is lost, and improvement efforts will suffer. 

As Taiichi Ohno said: "Don't look with your eyes, look with your feet, and, "Don't think with your head, think with your hands".

Ken 


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Dave LaHote November 12, 2014
Thanks Ken.  I know the people requesting electronic versions are just trying to do it the "right" way but as you point out they are missing the whole purpose behind the tool. Creating a common understanding by seeing and drawing together is the real purpose.  This is what creates organizational learning which is the real susatainable part of lean.
Dave


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Jair Reitsma November 12, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment
Dave,

Thank you for writing this post.  I am struggling to articulate this very idea, how we talk about Lean and how we capture this essential element of developing people (or a learning organization).  It seems like there is a lot of confusion about how a "Lean organization" actually operates.

Somehow I think we need to describe this "People Development" as THE unique differentiator.  It is clear that over the course of decades some tremendous tools have been created.  Organizations around the world have learned a lot about operational excellence, how to improve processes, and how to create big wins, whether in profits, quality, or service levels, but ... it seems like the primary difference between those who strive to improve process for the sake of the results, still are not getting closer to those who strive to improve people's capacity to do so.  I think the decision to focus on people's capacity (with simple tools) can clarify how we do "Lean Transformation" in a lot of orgs.

Perhaps I'm a little zealous, but I will continue to listen and learn how we can convey that message better.  Too bad we have to use words and can't just use pictures. :)


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Dave LaHote November 12, 2014
2 People AGREE with this reply
Thanks Jair.  John Shook has done a great job in recent years of painting Lean as both a Social and Technical system.  The unique thing about Toyota and TPS was that the social system was imbeded in the technical work.  John suggests and I agree that seperating the two with an over emphasis on one or the other suboptimises the potential.  Therefore we shouldn't feel we have to make a choice between putting emphasis on people development or operational excellence.  We need to make sure the people development piece is embedded in the real work of the business and the improvement of the business.  Easier said than done.  I wish you best on your personal learning journey.
Dave


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Frank Sabala November 12, 2014
Great article!  I think we get hung up with trying to do it the "correct" way or "proper" way, as you stated.  We do our best not to struggle with things, but the struggle is exactly what we need.  Discovery is not alway nice and pretty, but it leaders to better understanding.  Thanks again for your article.

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Rafael November 12, 2014
I was working for Aeroquip Vickers, later on acquired by Eaton, in the spanish plant for fluid connectorss since 1997 till 2009. Fortunately I could attend Excellence in Manufacturing training with you in 1997 within that time. I'm absolutely with you in supporting frontlíne operators and  leaders to understand the basics instead of adding new names and gadgets. Big pleasure to read your comments and hear about you. Congratulations

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Dave LaHote November 13, 2014
Thanks Rafael.  We were both very lucky to be a part of a great company.  It is always great to hear from a former Aeroquiper.

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Francisco Santos November 13, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Spot on! Today we see so many Companies talking about LEAN transformation/embedding LEAN/Black Belts. They are missing the point! The transformation is all about looking at Customer Experience, listening to your customer, spotting the issues and problem solve at this point LEAN tools are a masterpiece. The improvements will not come from the huge number of A3s being used but from use of an A3/Problem Solve/Value Stream Map/etc when we feel the need because we have found an area of improvement. This is a basic error when we don't live "Go Gemba" culture.



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Ed Borbely November 15, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Dave,

This post conveys essential experience and wisdom.  How often we focus on tools and techniques at the expense of clear headed thinking about what we're trying to accomplish.  I've been fortunate to observe you sharing this with other learners and collaborators, and this has helped me immensely in my work-- thank you for putting this so well into words!  


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Dave LaHote November 16, 2014
Thanks Ed 

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Erin Urban November 21, 2014
Another great post, Dave. I fully appreciate your perspective. In my experience thus far in my career I have seen too many determined applications of tools without a solid understanding of the princples behind why we use them or the purpose. It's a 'check the box' approach to continuous improvement. It seems as we progress in our professional society and the advent of Lean/Sigma, it becomes a hunt for the perfect Lean program, not a focus on the customer. Humans, by nature, tend to overcomplicate things. Your article urges us to get back to the basics and not to forget the fundamentals. Leave the fancy programs at home and go to the gemba to engage the people that do the work.

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Diane Buckley-Altwies November 24, 2014
Dave, What a great post.  In my company, I teach our business process improvement course and have your exact phylosophy.  It isn't the pretty picture that is important.  It is the thought process that each worker needs to have in order to effectively improve a process.

I am frustrated constantly when organizations want the "buzz" word class.  They want "lean", or "six sigma" or back when I started my career "TQM", thinking that there are tools that can be used to make their organization more effective.  

The reality is that it is the culture that needs to change and that the organization MUST be committed to continual business process improvement.  It's not sexy like these other words, but business process improvement is at the core of all these buzz words. 

Imagine a world where each worker says "hhmmm if I change my process, who else downstream would be impacted, and would it improve the overall process or hurt it?"

Great post Dave.
Diane


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Dave LaHote November 24, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this reply
Thanks Diane.  We could not have made the progress we did without the tools of lean.  Our improvement was grounded in what you have so well described as people feeling the imparative to improve their jobs every day.  With this thinking the tools were extremely useful in helping the workers see problems.  But as you said there is no magic in the tools.  Keep up the good fight and thanks again for the kind words.
Dave


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