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Why Practicing Lean Thinking Matters (Even if Your Bosses Don’t Care)

by Michael Ballé
March 13, 2015

Why Practicing Lean Thinking Matters (Even if Your Bosses Don’t Care)

by Michael Ballé
March 13, 2015 | Comments (9)

I was on the shop floor earlier this month, teaching a group of engineers to see the wasteful consequences of poorly thought out engineering choices. The site manager of the plant we were in listened carefully, and I feared he’d be offended as I pointed out inflexible processes, complex robots, difficult to assemble parts, and so on. I had a quick chat with him telling him that I thought his plant was very well kept (great 5S and an effort at Kanban), but without more frequent pick-ups from the internal trains, whatever they did, the plant would remain swamped with inventories.

20 years ago, people visiting Toyota in Japan kept going on about how many trucks came and went. It took us a while to realize that in Toyota’s just-in-time system there were no warehouses because all work-in-process parts were kept in transit: truck, truck preparation area, internal train, line-feeding, shop stock. The entire inventory kept rotating through the supply chain as blood through the body. 20 years later, few management teams have realized the importance of picking up finished work every 15-20 minutes to share with the production cells the feel of the customer’s pace of consumption. A 15 minute pick-up forces all attention on getting work done right first time, and creates the conditions for kaizen. Management teams who don’t get that can practice lean thinking here and there all they want; they won’t get there from here. Giving people an objective without a method is mean, but teaching a method without an objective is meaningless.

To my surprise, the site manager agreed. “It’s out of my hands,” he said. “I keep telling the group logistics VP that without frequent pick-ups all the work we do here won’t do much good, but he feels it’s stupid to add such costs with internal transport and is limiting trains to twice a day. I just don’t bother any more,” he said, clearly discouraged. He went on, “Here, as you came in with the group I was writing an e-mail about the next product they’re planning give us. We have four main components and each are made on a different continent. Continent! All this for a product that will sell for a few tens of euros in small quantities with lots of variety. They must be crazy! But in the end, I didn’t even send the e-mail, because what’s the point?”

In other words, what’s the point of doing lean if senior management doesn’t get it? This is a question I’m often asked. I agree, but not much. As we tried to illustrate in Lead With Respect, lean delivers when the CEO first understands the lean challenges, then drives it to people at the workplace, and third recognizes the opportunities in people’s initiatives and ideas and builds on that to change the entire company… one step at a time. If the CEO doesn’t get it, corporate will ruin every kaizen effort you make locally, every time. So what’s the point?

Practicing lean matters, even in adverse conditions. My background is in sociology, the study of social behavior. As I got increasingly involved in lean I progressively gave up on sociology, because the assumption was that cultures, institutions, and organizations are stable and drive behavior. This is maybe true if you try to predict what happens tomorrow, but my experience is that every couple of years brings complete, unexpected social and technological upheaval such as Lehman Brother’s collapse or the iPhone.

On the shop floor, I had to accept that, contrary to my previous research, I could not predict people’s behavior. One day they held fast to a position and, the next, they changed. In fact, what I could see is that more people would change their stand more often by assuming stability of structures and cultures. And indeed, large companies disappeared from one day to the next, whereas unknown start-ups would jump up to the forefront in five or ten years. Weird!

20 years practicing lean has got me nuancing my original “forget it” response. Reactions and positions remain impossible to predict (put it this way… we can’t help but predict how people will react, but then we get it wrong all the time). Still, some aspects are easier to predict. First: intentions. Although actions are driven by motivations and motivations change, intentions are more stable. Intentions are also far fewer and longer term. For instance, in yesterday’s company, the logistics VP's intention was to keep the unit cost down, by manufacturing parts where it would be cheaper. And by optimizing transports by carrying large quantities of parts in cheap transport – I can immediately bet that components are transported by shipping containers (won that bet). Similarly, my own intention is to teach executives that lean is a full business system they can manage their companies with.

Intentions, however, are also linked to calculations. A key takeaway from Daniel Kahneman’s research on mental models was that we subconsciously reduce any complex problem to the part we feel we can solve. On the shop floor, I’ve come to realize that we’ve reached the root cause when we’ve finally figured out the calculation the engineer makes that explains the problem we’re dealing with. For instance, the logistics VP calculates cost product by product, which leads to high-volume fragmented processes rather than calculate the lead-time by product, which would lead to radically different supply chains.

Actions, calculations, and intentions always occur within a context where culture, whether societal, national or organizational does matter:






Frowned upon


Inscribed in systems in place

Hard and new, have to be done case by case


Encouraged and rewarded

Discouraged or blocked

The social context (i.e. how your neighbors behave) has some impact on how you feel and what you’d like to do, but in this you’re very much your own person, and you have a much greater impact (often unconscious) on the goals you pick and strategies you take to get there. For instance, at executive level the intention of executives the intention “make a profit no matter what” is far more common than that of “social responsibility.” For listed companies, the intention of “keep shareholders happy,” trumps that of “create foundations for sustainable growth” and so on. At a calculation level, “cut temp workers to make the year end budget,” is a far more common calculation than “stabilize and reduce lead-times so you have less need of labor overall.” One calculation is already inscribed in the financial reporting system, easy to make and easy to sell. The other is a hard uphill battle - hard to make and harder to justify.

Which brings me to my original point. Although carrying through lean intentions and making lean calculations is hard and lonely work because infrequent, it is also key to opening possibilities and opportunities. 

A few gifted individuals change the world because they persist in showing that something previously thought impossible can and will become possible. Bill Gates first showed that every one could have a computer on their desk (when he set about to proving this, computers were an investment only companies could make), and has now set about showing that extreme poverty in economically struggling regions can be solved. The Koch brothers intend to prove that climate change doesn’t need intervention and that it’s okay for a few people to own as much as half the rest of the planet. In both cases, their intentions defy our common sense, but their smarts, success, and persistence make these goals acceptable, and maybe even, well, common sense.

If your boss doesn't get it, don't expect to convince them - unfortunately, I've never seen that happen. Do expect to get them interested if you manage to make them look good with your results. Then they sometimes take the plunge (I've seen that happen). Don’t expect corporate staffers to ever stop ruining your lean efforts with occasionally really stupid decisions. But don’t give up or underestimate the importance of local lean efforts. You might not be able to convince your bosses to buy into the lean philosophy and practice, but through your actions you will be changing the scope of what is possible and what is not, what is commonly accepted and what even can be looked at in your organization. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but after 20 years of shop floor practice I can tell you it has a far, far greater impact than you can see now. In demonstrating lean success on the gemba, your impact is very real, even though it doesn’t always feel like it. Don’t give up, as the site manager I met last week did. Never give up.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  culture,  leadership
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9 Comments | Post a Comment
Olivier Bost March 13, 2015

Thank you Mr. Ballé for sharing your brilliant and original perspectives on Lean issues.

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John Shook March 13, 2015
7 People AGREE with this comment

Excellent post, Michael. And timely. Certainly it is nice to have the boss's permission, but equally certainly, one should never need an excuse to do the right thing. But what especially caught my attention in today's Post was your point about objectives versus methods. It seems lately that we're making good and critical progress on "means" - new twists on how to actualize PDCA, the resurgence of TWI, the attention given to "kata", the experiment techniques of the Lean Startup and LeanUX crowds, and more - so what's appearing now (next level problem) are a lot of powerful means without meaningful purpose. Or, as you put it so beautifully: "Giving people an objective without a method is mean, but teaching a method without an objective is meaningless". Hope you don't mind if I quote you on that one. - John

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Tim Odokeychuk March 15, 2015

A great read & reminder, Michael.

Having persistence to do what you know is right is tough to keep unless there is support & encouragement from the leadership group.

From an internal OR external position, convincing an Executive/Director/VP that Lean thinking needs to span the organisation and to lead continual improvement efforts from the front is challenging - but, it can happen.

The question is whether the commitment to never never never never never give up is really made?

Would you agree that the Site Manager needs encouragement to continue to think globally and act locally then use his site's performance to 'speak'?

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prabhat vats March 16, 2015

Thank you Sir for sharing this wonderful article.

It answers all my queries asked in your previous article.

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David Geschwind March 16, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

You get what you measure.  How is the Group Logistics VP's performance measured?

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Brittney Stromski March 16, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Great article Sir.  This article is very accurate and hits home.  Being a young engineer that has a passion for Lean, I've had a hard time really fitting into a company where I can grow and use my skill set.  I am always trying to implement Lean tools and do the little things to show results.  But it is difficult when the management just doesn't get it.  Makes it hard to stay motiviated and focused. 

I've worked with one manager that understood it and we make a difference in the culture until new management came in and decided our department wasn't needed anymore.  To find that again will be hard but I'm hoping some day I can get into an environment like that again.  It makes the job fun and it feels more like a career than a job, where I have to convince those above me that what I'm doing will help the business. 

Plus, to have a manager that can mentor me and challenege me will allow me to become more knowledgeable and gain experience which I lack when the management does not have the focus on Lean.

Thanks again for the motivation to keep going, especially on the hard days!

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Michael Balle March 16, 2015
3 People AGREE with this reply

I think this is unfortunately part of the lean experience. Lean is a learning system made for folks who are interested in learning and coaching.

Many organizations favor managers who "get things done" - firefighting and execution of strategy from on high. These guys have little interest in learning or even listening to their staff. They just want them to shut up, stop asking "why?" questions and get on with delivering output.

Nevertheless, I feel that doing things right is its own reward in many ways. And yes, indeed, it can be discouraging when efforts to do kaizen are thwarted or noit appreciated. This still happens to me occasionally. In the same week, one senior executive wants to start in another division whereas in one other company, the logistics manager succeeds in stopping all lean progress because he doesn't like what it shows of his operations.

Win some, lose some, but the great thing about a learning attitude, is that they're all interesting. You don't get to chose your manager, but you can certainly look outside and find great mentors :)

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Katherine Clarke March 16, 2015
2 People AGREE with this comment

Thank you for this very timely post.  It can be a lonely road implementing Lean where senior managers don't understand the benefits and constantly undermine the efforts.  It's a reminder that you have to have the courage to lead mangers by example and sometimes to walk alone in the face rampant ignorance.   I haven't given up yet!

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Rick Bohan March 19, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Wow...an article that tells us how to implement lean under bosses who are utterly bereft of imagination, of curiousity, of vision, of any notion of sustainable competitive advantage, of any sense of honest-to-goodness strategy.

I wonder if the article might better have addressed how to find another job if and when one finds oneself working for such slipshod, negligent corporate "leaders".  

Don't work for dumb people.

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