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I'm Michael Ballé, Ask Me Anything

by Michael Ballé
December 17, 2015

I'm Michael Ballé, Ask Me Anything

by Michael Ballé
December 17, 2015 | Comments (59)

Hello, I’m Michael Ballé, co-author of The Gold MineThe Lean ManagerLead With Respect, and most recently, The Gold Mine Trilogy Study Guide. I’ve been studying Lean for the past 20 years, first as a researcher, then as a workshop facilitator, then as designer of corporate lean programs and now as a CEO executive coach.

These days I’m thinking about questions like:

  • What does it mean to manage others in the 21st century as we move towards a knowledge society?
  • How can we reconcile companies and their customers, management and employees, performance and creativity?
  • Is there a way to teach both strong leadership and caring for people?

But what would YOU like to know about the challenges of implementing Lean? What problems are you working on with your lean work? This is your chance to ask me anything! So, go ahead, ask your questions in the comments below and I’ll respond to your questions here on the Post!

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  books,  gemba,  leadership,  respect
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Massimo Pallotti December 17, 2015

Bonjour Micael,

 Thanks for this chance. I am going with a very narrow question, I hope this is not inconvenient.

My client is a mechanical industry (100 people) trying to go through its lean journey and asking me for help in this process. Things are improving since two years (i.e. quality + 50%, productivity + 15%), but we are far from the kind of improvements coming from a lean path, and myself as a consultant I am not sure I am doing the right things.

For instance, we were not able to create flows at all. But let me give you more details.

My client processes composite materials (bakelite, fiberglass, plastic, iron and so on) and transform them to customer specifications. Customers are generally producing large machines, and asking us for producing single parts for them to assemble. As you imagine, there is a high variety of codified articles so far, going up to 30.000 (and increasing)

The core of our activity is an engineering CAM department creating CNC programs using a CAD CAM 5 axis software, and (for production) a CNC machine department (beside manual machines like drills, lathes and so on to prepare or finish the article).

The CNC machine department counts more than 20 machines, each of them different from the others. In size, they range from the size of a car to a size of a couple of trucks. In flexibility, they go from 2,5 to 5 axes. In precision, they can guarantee tolerances from tenths to a cent of millimetres.

Each part asked from customers has to be produced in only one or two of those machines (you better don’t put a 5 cm with no tolerances part in a machine working 4 mt parts with strict tolerances). Often, a part has to be produced in a combination of 2 CNC machines, and the combination can vary.

We estimated that at best only 8% of production goes through the same combination of those CNC machines (actually, it goes through a single CNC machine). The rest is scattered through different machines’ combination. Therefore, in the shopflor, parts of very different sizes goes in every direction. As I said, we weren’t able to create value streams and flow, and everything is regulated by an MRP. As a consequence, lead times skyrocket (minimum 1 day for a part to go from one machine to the other!!!!!) and the rest goes with it.


I believe there must be a way to create production families and introduce flow, and we are progressing (i.e. standardising which kind of feature has to go to which machine, and approached with which production strategy). Beside that we are working on red bin, on transversal problem solving (production used not to talk with engineering, or rather the other way round), on safety and from now we are including sales force to stop bringing customer request too far from production know-how.

But I feel we are missing something, and I don’t see how to look in order to flow so to significantly reduce Lead Time and increase a shamefull on time delivery of 30%!!!


Any suggestion about the direction we could explore?


Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015

I'm glad that we start with an easy question LOL :-)) this is one of the harder problems I've come across.

Here's the trick, before trying to reduce lead-time, try focusing on controlling lead-time.

Do you have an hourly plan per machine? Set up on a whiteboard a part by part plan for the day at each machine and start focusing on parts that take more time than what was planned, and discuss why, what are the problems and so on.

As you solve small issues, you'll progressively understand how some features/design work better on some machines, and can refine your product/process matrix in terms of product types which go on each machine.

If you also have a minute by minute production film, (classic tool page 6+5 of THE GOLD MINE STUDY GUIDE) to track how your critical machines are really used, you'll have a much better picture of what goes on.

So If you look at the classic TPS house, the key, I've found, in precision machining is the "heijunka" block: better leveling the load per machine - which then leads to better flow and then shorter lead-times.


Sorry I can't help more - hard to do witghout being on the ground but 1) don't try to solve the overall problem, do kaizen first, 2) before worrying about lead-time reduction focus on lead-time control and 3) go into the technicalities of the product design/ machine capability and see what the situation looks like. My bet is you'll have new insights to imagine how to better flow work, and then reduce lead-time.

how does that sound? Thanks for the serious question ;^)))


Reply »

massimo pallotti, December 17, 2015

Thank you Michael for your helpful advice! We have just started with levelling, so we’ll just invest more on this. We are struggling on going into technicalities, so we continue on that as well getting inspired by your suggestions.

One point I don’t understand. We have production plan of parts per machine (OK, no whiteboard yet, just print A4 from MRP – shame on us) and we do problem solving for (scrap and) discrepancies (only if over 30’ … Ouch!) between forecasted and real cicle time. But in this way I feel we have control over cicle time, while (as we follow the MRP) the lead time is in the waiting queue between the machines and out of control…


There must be something I don’t catch in your advice. Thank you for your patience in explaining at length. Best regards, and cheers from Tuscany.


Reply »

Phil Coy December 17, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply


A specialty steel operation I worked with had a similar situation where we could not find product families with common flows.   They had 50-60 different processes (milling, slitting, normalizing, heat treat, plating, etc) and hundreds of products.  There were hundreds of possible paths through their processes.  We tried to find product families and construct individual value streams by family but found that no matter how we looked at it, every process became a shared resource to every other product family.   In the end we decided that the entire operation would have to be managed as a single highly branched value stream.  We then dove into the details to model each process based on demand and process capabilities (cycle time, downtime, changeover, etc) and calculated the EPEI for each process.  Then we set that EPEI to be the queue time in their MRP.  They reduced their WIP 30% and increased their on-time delivery to mid-90s.   This was over a few month period.

I've found that machine shops often have these situations with high variation that are very challenging.  What makes this even possible is that we've developed technology tools that apply lean principles to variation and complexity in order to continue to make progress.  Using technology to further lean we've found is essential in high mix, low volume operations.



Michael Balle December 17, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Okay, try this - can you create a visual board with a line per machine where you visualize the waiting queue for each machine, as if they were cashiere points in a supermarket. You can even visualize job duration with the size of the magnet.

In this way you can visualize the lead-time for each new job. You can see, according to which machine you put it on, what the queue is currently like and how long the lead time is going to be.

doing this day by day should make two things appear:

1. half an hour is huge - minutes lost are critical to the process, so you need to track utilization fare more precisely

2. ask your engineering guys what design changes could make use of machines with lesser queues


Sabine Gowsy December 17, 2015

Hi Michael,

Here my question :

- What do you think about Lean and Green Thinking?

I know Toyota is engaged in that way. But what about Lean?




Sab ??

Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015

Absolutely one of the areas we should be researching far more than we currently are. I've started exploring the topic, but so far, sadly, only scratched the surface.

The question here is what kind of lean you're talking about. The two aspects of lean thinking I find astonishing and really powerful are:

1. always think of product and process simultaneously

2. improve many small operational things before having an idea of the bigger problem and what to do about it

If you list the various technical elements of your process, whether service and production, and ask yourself what can I improve? As a writer and speaker, my carbon footprint is appalling because of all the traveling, but I can look at:

- trains rather than planes

- better insulation of home

- LEDs rather than traditional lights

- locally grown foodstuff, rather than around the world chain food

-better recycling

 And then get better at measuring carbon footprint and so on in order to face the problems rather than worry at it - a problem is a gap to a standard, so not a problem as long as there is no standard.

By trying to improve a bit on each of these dimensions, I learn about all the various aspects of the projects and acquire some disciplined knowledge which eventually will lead me to see the problem as a whole differently - NOT the other way around of solving the problem in theory and then executing the solution. 

This upside down way of thinking is unique to lean thinking and a great hope for green thinking because of the very complex nature of green problems - discover which are the improvement dimensions rather than seek an ultra-solution

Reply »

Andrew December 17, 2015

Hi Michael,

On the LEI forums there is a lot of debate surrounding the true definition of lean and lack there of.

What is your definition of lean? And does having a universal definition matter in order to understand and practice lean?

Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Yes, this discussion has been around since "lean" was coined. I tend to be very hardcore. 

My definition of lean is the response of non-Toyota businesses that try to face Toyota's challenge to industry and learn from their method.

The method is largely explained by the TPS and the Toyota Way and I personally believe that lean thinking means making an effort to understand TPS and TW, not reinvent or reinterpret.

Having said that, it's a free world, and I don't think having a universal definition is that important. Part of the scientific mindset of lean is that we should be free to hear any point of view and test it at the gemba. My personal test is: what performance improvement have we achieved from what specific kaizen effort, and who have we developped in the process? 

So, yes, I do have strong opinions on the matter, but I also think that the debate is a good thing, even though sometimes it does seem to focus on the finger rather than  looking at the moon the finger points towards ;^))

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Mark Graban December 17, 2015
3 People AGREE with this reply

I agree that we should cite Toyota and look to their definitions, especially since they are more openly publishing information on their company websites and TSSC.com... compared to the days when Jim and Dan defined "Lean" as a term.

People are going to adapt a methodology to suit their organization. I've talked recently with a Toyota executive who encourages that, in fact. We shouldn't blindly follow Toyota.

That said, when a definition of Lean it outright incorrect... I think that's harmful in many ways. Such as the Lean Sigma framework of "Lean is for speed and Six Sigma is for quality." That's hogwash, it's factually incorrect, and it's harmful.

Reply »

Ken Hunt December 17, 2015
2 People AGREE with this reply


Regarding your last sentence......I couldn't have said it better. Thanks for the common sense comment.


Tom Ehrenfeld December 17, 2015

People often get excited about lean, get started by learning a really effective tool that helps spot waste or enable better problem-solving. But then they are told that lean is NOT about tools. What's wrong with starting by learning something that is tangible and new? 

Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015
3 People AGREE with this reply

I'd say the full statement is that lean is not ONLY about the tools, but of course the tools matter enormously.

The core element of lean thinking is kaizen: studying our current work method and finding a better way of doing thing that improves performance. 

Some kaizen topics are endemic in lean and become codified as "tools". For instance, organizing one's own work area to maintain standardized work is a typical lean problem, so, not surprisingly a specific method has been invented to do that kaizen: 5S

Similarly, you can't do lean without reducing batches, which will likely mean speeding up change overs. Here again, a method of kaizen has been put together (mostly by Shigeo Shingo observing how Toyota did it back in the day) to separate internal work from external work and so on: SMED

So the classic "tools" are kaizen methods in repeating lean problems, problems you'll come across at some point if you're practicing lean.

But, as we were discussing in your previous question, the kaizen itself (supported by the tool) can become a random walk if it doesnt have a higher level goal, such as "improve flow to reduce lead-time" or "improve pull to close down the WIP warehouse" and so on.

tools are essential as an observation method, but can easily be misinterpreted if we lose sight of 1) the challenges of lean, such as improve quality, reduce cost, reduce lead-time, improve energy efficiency, and the2) of the visualization to support these challenges, just-in-time (takt time, continuous flow, pull system) and jidoka (stop at defect and separate human work from machine work). 

To sum up, you need to know the tools inside out, but the principles as well. The world is changed by tools and ideas: what is the point of the printing press without an idea of personal theology, of the telescope without the idea of solar systems, of the Interned without connectivity of web pages and so on. Tools are levers, but the idea is the fulcrum. Performance improvement is the result of both the rigorous mastery of the tools (sixty years of Toyota and 20 years of lean tradition) and the idea in situ - which brings us back to contextuality.

By all means it starts with the tool, but don't use tools without asking first: what is the problem we're trying to solve? What is the direction of improvement we're seeking?

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Sharon December 17, 2015

I've been with my company for awhile and we've been doing lean for years. Recently I got a new boss. At first I was excited to have someone with so much experience (he's been doing lean for a very long time) to coach me but it feels as though unless I do exactly as he says I'm forever in his bad graces. My guess is maybe he doesnt fully understand my work, how do I approach this subject to him in a respectful way?

Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Aaa.. tough one. I remember how a retired Toyota General Manager once told me the three rules to succeed in business:

Rule #1: make your boss look good

Rule #2: first remember rule #1

Rule #3: there are no other rules

So, yes, bosses are bosses, even in lean. The deeper question is whether your boss doesn't listen to your ideas because:

a) he doesn't listen

b) he feels you're not listening to him first

I realized this is not easy, and I'm personally not a good person to give this sort of advice because listening never came easy to me but I've learned workign with sensei that first I had to do things the way they wanted me to, show them what worked and what didn't work to prove I had understood and then they would listen to what I had to say (which, ofte, had changed from the process of doing it).

So here's the acid test. If you take specific items where you do exactly what you boss says you should and THEN he still doesn't listen, you're in real trouble. If he starts listening the chances are that the relationship will progressively improve as you get to know each other better.

A key career decision we make (often without realizing it) is who we listen to in the organization. In a perfect world, we'd listen to the good people who would also be nice people. Unfortunately, really top people tend to be impatient and demanding, and some really nice people tend to be not so good at what they do. So the question is in terms of 1) how do you evaluate how good your boss really is - ask around and 2) how much of this can you take. Be kind to yourself and realize that no matter what the learning potential is, if you can't stand the guy, you can't stand the guy, give it a few months, and if it doesn't get any better, getta outa there. People join companies and leave their boss. It's okay.

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Mark Graban December 17, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply

We have to be careful about that Rule #1.

When I worked at Dell Computer 1999-2000 (not a TPS company), my boss said "my job is to make my boss look good."

The emphasis, sadly, was on making things LOOK good instead of actually making things better. It was very frustrating... and that's why I didn't stay there long.

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Neil Andal December 17, 2015


As we work to further develop lean thinking in our organization, I would be interested to hear your thoughts regarding "Is there a way to teach both strong leadership and caring for people?".

Although, I would like to slightly modify the question to "strong lean leadership." Thanks.

Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015

When we're faced with a difficult issue and tensions rise, I ask myself: are we being kind or cruel? Are we being caring or callous? Are we being constructive or destructive? It is not ok to feel that "in order to make an omelet you have to break some eggs" and disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing. So if we find ourselves guilty of not caring (which, sadly, does happen) we try to have the discipline to step back and ask ourselves: how can we achieve the same results in a more mindful way.

Having said that most of the lean leaders I work with would be described as "strong leaders" - as a bunch they're certainly not a charismatic lot, and not that good at givign a clear vision other than the intent to improve this and that. 

What they are is persistent and, when needed, resilient. If plan A doesn't work to get an improvement, they'll ask you for a plan B to move in the same direction. 

In other words, the lean leadership I've come across is more of a knowledge leadership of bosses who understand the technicalls ins and outs of issues rather than "strong" leaders as we perveive them. Their leadership strength show up in:

1) their obstinacy at working on difficult topics over years, step by step

2) they good judgment of choosing the people they surround themselves with through promotion and recruitment.

Maybe I misunderstood the question?

Reply »

Leyla Is December 17, 2015



How about Lean and Innovation from a board perspectiv, your thoughts, experience?



Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015

Not easy to answer succinctly :-). I'l have a go at how is "lean innovation" different. When we think innovation, we tend to think breaktrhough technology and then build the product around it. Say, Tim Berners Lee invents the www and then we can build a commercial site around it, and another and two decades later we've got... whatever we have.

Lean innovation is rather different inasmuch as we

1) try to improve all features of the product step by step, to vreate a flow of products (like the iPhone 1, 2, ... 6) not just a breakthrough product from a clean slate

2) develop alternative technologies off-line - not dedicated to a specific commercial product

3) when the technology is ready (safe and reasonably robust) we include it in the next generation product.

For instance Toyota was improving every feature of the their car's energy efficiency well before they committed to hybrid tech. Hybrid tech was in fact one of several technologies that were developped off-line in parallel, and the first to get to the market.

It's easy to believe the prius was developped around the hybrid engine, but in fact many of the techs involved in making the prius energy efficient were already in use, and the first prius was a hybrid engine plugged into an existing platform. Simialry the revolutionary mirai is now a hydrogen engine mounted on a prius platform.

an other important lean innvoation feature is that the production process progresses in synch with the product improvement, thus opening unexpected opportunties for making innovation work (for instance, Toyota has been selling its patent for hybrid tech to other automakers who are so far struggling with developping their own designs because of the learning curves involved)

Innovation is at the heart of lean, but as real innovation rests on capability development (it's easy to draw a flying car, but we don't know how to make it) which in itself is individual competency development, so lean innovation can seem slow - in fact it works completly differently.

Thank you for a very interesting question, and indeed, we're not doing enough in the lean movement so far to explore the unique features of lean innovation!

Reply »

Leyla Is December 17, 2015


" Innovation is at the heart of lean, but as real innovation rests on capability development (it's easy to draw a flying car, but we don't know how to make it) which in itself is individual competency development, so lean innovation can seem slow - in fact it works completly differently."

Yes, innovation is not only about R&D, it is actually much more about recognize and developing capabilities.

I wouldn´t say that it is completely different, because you´re already improving and changing peoples mindset when working with kaizen, continouos improvement etc within Lean!?.

How can and should Lean guys work further with Lean and innovation?


Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015

One of the less explored lean fields is lean product development, which is a pity since lean manufacturing is hard to understand if we don't first look at Toyota's product design and development strategy.

so, to understand innovation, we first need to understand lean development and in particular the link between product architecture and work content - the way the proudct is assembled. 

Innovation appears both in terms of product features and production features. The lean challenge is to see how kaizen steps in both product features and production features can come together to create real innovation, recognized by customers and that puts pressure on the market.

Essentially, we kinda know what we're looking for, but should have a greater research effort - which is not easy since product development tends to played close to the chest.

Bo Brønager December 17, 2015

Hi Michael,

Can you elaborate on the differences and simularities between the improvement /coaching kata and problem solving using PDCA A3 thinking/8 step model. And where can they supplement each other?

We are currently working (for the last 1,5 years) with problem solving, designing our own model, based on the 8 step model and now thinking on Kata, as a way of daily improvements.

All the best


Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015

Hard to comment as I have no direct experience with kata ;^) Mike would be a better person to ask.

The main thing, I guess, is that I personally don't use problem solving to... well, solve problems. I use problem solving to teach standards to adults.

The three main PDCA tools I use are daily performance problem solving, kaizen and A3. Adults only learn through putting their experience in context, and drawing their own conclusions. To do so, I tend to work at three levels:

On the job itself with taking the time daily or every couple of days to discuss as a team how someone presents a full PDCA: formulate the problem, seek root cause, come up with a countermeasure, study the effects of this countermeasure. The main point of this exercise are:

1) learn to formulate problems better as a gap in performance caused by a gap in process

2) look up all existing standards to explain the cause

3) develop reactivity by coming up quickly with a countermeasure that will bring us back into standard

4) look for the effects and think more deeply

the main benefit of this exercise is, strangely, the discipline of not expressing causes on opinion, but as a gap to standards, which means finding the standards and either i) there is one and there's a gap, ii) there is no standard and we need to write one or iii) the standard is either no good or doesn't apply to this specific situation, and we need to improve it.

then every team is supposed to have an on-going kaizen exercise based on Art Smalley and Isao Kato's method of:

1) performance improvement opportunity

2) study current method

3) come up with new ideas

4) plan to test and get validation where needed

5) implement and measure impact

6) evaluate the new method

this team exercise's point is mostly about understanding the current team work method (again, what are team standards) and creativity of new ideas (as well as learning to deal with the rest of the organization). this is to strengthen team learning.

then the A3 - I use A3 mostly at managmeent team level where managers present finished A3s to each other to develop teamwork, ie to share their mutual understanding of the difficulties each of them encounter and how to help each other in order to improve cross-functional problems. The point of the A3 at this level is more to have a common problems description language, like an internet IP protocol than the supporting problem solving per se.

Problem solving happens every day on the job and, to my mind, is mostly a matter of observation and discussion and looking at Manpower, Material, Machine and Method in a given situation. The formal aspects of problem solving as PDCA, Kaizen steps, A3 are important for communication more than anything else and creating a sense of teamwork based on 1) a better understanding of our standards and 2) a recognition small step creativity.

I believe that, ultimately, perfromance is not so much the results of static efficiency (solving all problems in a rigid system) but of dynamic gaings (moving steadily one small improvement after the other) and the lean tools help us support and sustain that.

Not sure I actually answered your question re-kata, but hope this helps?

Reply »

Bo Brønager December 17, 2015

Hi Michael,


You did not actually answer my quistion, but gave me something to reflect upon. ;O)

And I can see that we are working in the right direction, regarding how to adress problems.


Reply »

Nathan December 17, 2015


I am working with a very small (but growing) company to develop a lean system to handle their increasing volume.  I can see many opportunities but the 5 front-line staff sincerely believe they are doing things the best and fastest way so they have no interest in changing. Management does understand the need for change though.  

I think I need to just push some things through to show the staff the value of lean but I don't want to set a precedent of forcing change nor do I want to be considered the only one responsible for making changes.  

Do you have any suggestions on how to balance those points while moving forward with positive change?  

Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply

No easy answers :^)) - May I ask which capacity you're working as?

In my experience the only path to lean I've found is convince the CEO that he or she needs to make the personal investment in learning the theory and practice of TPS - the full thing. 

Believe me, since few do, I've tried every other workaround you can think of over the past 20 years, and, in the end, this is the only way I've made it succeed - on the other hand, the TPS house path succeeds quite spectacularly, which is nice - so I personally don't have many doubts. I work with senior executives committed to go to the trouble of learning the TPS house element by element and then as a system themselves.

When the CEO or COO gets it, there's a first couple of difficult years when the pull system is implemented, but then on, it all gets a lot easier (and financial results usually become visible after one year, which helps). We then discover which of the managers will help and which will hinder. Frontline staff, I've never had a problem with so far - when we do it right, they're usually quite happy that management is finally looking at operational issues and trying to fix stuff.

Not sure that helps - can you bemore specific about context?

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Nathan December 17, 2015

My role is dedicated to process improvement - the 'lean guy' - hired a few months ago for that specific purpose.  

I have an ambitious and disorganized owner/president and his more detail oriented right-hand man, the COO.  They both have some exposure and basic understanding of lean. They verbally support with zeal and regularly (though not frequently) participate in shop floor improvement activities. 

The thing that has me baffled is the strong resistance from frontline staff. Its backwards from what I've typically experienced.  With the president and COO support I could force through some changes but I feel that goes against 'respect for people'. The staff think they are organized, that they are effective and, really, they think they are already lean.

Should I just keep educating until they see the waste that I see? Should I try to push through a 'pilot' project to demonstrate lean? I'm not sure the frontline staff would willingly follow any new system I suggest. 

Reply »

Nathan December 17, 2015

Sorry, just more context of the company: total staff is 10 plus me and they have all been together for a number of years. I'm really an outsider. 

The product line is electronics, a high mix and new products being added often, usually based on orders for more powerful variations of existing product. There is a concerted effort to stabilize at least parts of the product line which will certainly help. The shop is small with each of the 5 shop workers having his/her own station; stations are not setup by task. They are very sensitive about "their personal space".

As I mentioned, we are growing and have nearly doubled volume each of the past few years and expect to do so again. MEeting orders on time won't happen without changes to the system but shop staff don't seem to acknowledge that. 

Michael Balle December 17, 2015

If I understand this correctly, this is a small company, and they might indeed feel that "lean" is something of an overkill for such as small outfit, and... let's face it they've got a point.

The issue here is how can you align your own personal success with that of the company - what can you do better that would help the company do better.

So the part of lean that you might have to learn is not so much the shop floor kaizen tools, but how to set challenging targets and basic visualization - such as looking at every customer complaint and so on.

Fundamentally, humans will fight against anything imposed on them, or that they feel excluded from, and fight for anything they have contributed to. In a small company, it's hard to make them realize that JOB = WORK + KAIZEN is more effective than simply JOB = WORK. They probably feel they contribute enough as is.

By deconvincing the CEO and COO that defining better outcomes - which custoemrs to follow, how to better satisfy them, reduce complaints by half, double turnover, double margins, etc. - you have a better chance of creating an environment in which your kaizen skills will be needed and valued by the frontline guys

With a company that size and a selling product the real lean challenge is in the cooperation between product design and production, so that you establish the basis of sound growth - how can you continue to add variety without creating wip?

tough spot - not sure this helps, but my experience with small companies is that the issue is in defining outcomes rather than outputs, creating goalposts, and then involving the frontline workers.

Mark Graban December 17, 2015

Michael - 

What are your thoughts about a hospital that has middle managers and some front line staff using Lean and continuous improvement methods in small pockets or silos.... they often complain that they can't get their executives to take any interest in Lean. Advice?



Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015

Hey Mark,

This is really a tough one. I can't think of one situation where the CEO was not on board from the start and was convinced by local successes - in some cases, the CEO was not fully aware of quite how much personal involvement lean needed and got pulled in by a string of successful kaizens, but usually he or she was interested/curious from the start.

For some reason, lean results don't seem to convince senior execs, unless they are already seeking lean results - no reorganization, no winners and losers, no big bang investment, just working better together doesn't quite cut it. I have the case right now of a site manager doing great work and with quite visible results, and still not convincing his leadership structure that'd rather spend time in meeting and seminars than on the gemba (not bitching, just describing as it happened this week)

So I realy don't know what to advice other than the 3 rules we discussed earlier on - every human activity has a technical and a political dimension. Lean usually focuses on the technical dimension but here you have a political problem so:

1) how do you make the results stand out

2) how do you attribute it to senior management (even when they are the ones holding you back)

3) how can you show a promise of much, much more if lean is supported wall-to-wall

back in the day when Freddy had to prove to his own management teams that lean worked (mid-nineties), he started with a prodcutivity plan, had some spectacular results where the managers did the kaizen the right way, and then extrapolated these results across the board to come up with the challenging figure for the group.

Imagine, for instance, than in a few wards you can result noscomial infections by half in a few wards where they make a special effort, you can then draw a picture of the hospital with these results applied across the board, and the impact on length of stay at hospital level.

No magic wand unfortunately, but this "true potential" approach is the only one I know that catches - sometimes - management attention.

Does that help?

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Dan Markovitz December 17, 2015


Related to Mark's question: given that you've been around the block (more than) a few times, do you refuse to work with organizations where the CEO isn't on board? Based on your experience, you know that the effort will fail without CEO involvement. On the other hand, you can still do a lot of good for the front line and mid-level managers by making their work a little bit easier, better, and faster.


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Michael Balle December 17, 2015
2 People AGREE with this reply

Hi Dan,

Yes, I will only work at C-level CEO, COO or head of engineering. And even COO is tricky if we can't find a way of getting the CEO on board. On the other hand, in large groups, there are some levels such as site manager or division manager where you can get some progress, but expect A LOT of politics as when you visibly improve one unit you also vcreate a lot of jealousy and push back.

I'm personally no longer int the game to make things better for people - I believe this is their problem. I try to show leaders how to better compete, both externally and internally and how to have better relationships with their employees and create a better working atmosphere. I point towards improvement potential and teach lean techniques, but don't do anything myself.

It has been my painful experience that it's not too hard to improve one area and to fire up people so they work better faster easier, but the organization fallout makes it hard to bear. For instance, in hospitals, ward managers have done incredible stuff - they're competent, motivated, and are usually well disposed towards their staff. They care about care and patients, so hey ho, give them a few lean techniques and they're away. And in almost every case, their senior management will stop the effort, divert it, subvert it, and in the end find a way to punish the ones who led foremost.

So yes, call me disenchanted, but I do not start what I can finish, and find it cruel (having done it several times in the past) to give people the hope that they can create better outcomes by better running their own processes to see their hopes dashed for politcal reasons.

Hard to know what is right - your feeling?

Dan Markovitz December 17, 2015

Well, I'm not at your level of experience or knowledge, so I don't have the luxury you have in choosing clients. However, as a general principle, I think that the more people we can expose to lean -- the more people that can experience alternatives to command & control work environments -- the more likely it is that we can shift the baseline mindset of corporate America in the long run. 

Yes, it might be cruel in the short term to give people hope that will be dashed, but when they go to their next company, or the one after that, or when they become leaders themselves, they'll have different expectations and preconceptions.  

But of course, that's only a hypothesis : )

Michael Balle December 17, 2015

These are not mutually exclusive positions - for the community to have healthy growth we need 1) thought leaders to frame the concepts, 2) missionaries to spread the word, and 3) exemplars to prove with sustainable results. Your argument for 2) makes perfect sense!

Juan Pablo Bustamante December 17, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Hello Michael, 

It's really great to have this opportunity to ask you anything. I'm a regular follower of your posts. 

One of the most common questions I get is how do I start the Lean Journey? based on my experience I've seen places where 5s would be the obvious start and in others visual management and problem solving as they have already done some basic 5s. Going back to the roots and looking at the Toyota House of Lean, I see that one should start by standardization and then working the way up to JIT and JIDOKA. 

I know that there is no point in doing any of that if management is not on board. Probably getting them to Go & see and support problem solving would be another way to start. 

Your perspective on this question would be very useful, 

Best regards

Juan Pablo


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Michael Balle December 17, 2015

Thanks! And yes, it's never easy to know where to start. Here's an example of how we recently started in a new environment:


and what we tried to describe in The Gold Mine, which you can now fins summarized in the new Study Guide.

the question is, start what? What is the problem we're trying to solve?

I tend to think in two terms:

1) solve immediate, obvious performance problems to makes things better for customers and take some friction away from employees, which, hopefully will lead me to understand the real problems

2) teach the manager the TPS house to make kaizen sustainable and get financial results.

So I start with pull right away - truck delivery plan, truck preparation zone and production analysis board on every cell - not very original, this is how I sw Toyota start with a supplier 20 years ago.

The I make a deal for zone control with the site manager: a 5S workshop once a week with a plan to cover the entire site and a commitment to visit the workshop from the manager to start a dynamic of improvement.

And then teach the TPS house although I tend to start from the top:

What kind of competitive advantage do we seek?

What topics will we statisfy our customers better by developping our people's competency (to acquire capability)

then how does this translate into safety, quality, cost, lead-time (variety) and energy performance challenges?

then how do we visualize:

JIT (takt, flow, pull) and Jidoka (andon and autonomation)

Finally, it's often hard to explain that the only way should affect the gemba ids by better heijunka in planning, work on problems solving and standards, and kaizen.


Actually, starting is only half the battle. The key to the ongoing dynamics is seeking the game plan after we've started. For instance, in the Planet Lean paper we describe how we got started, but it's only in the past couple of months, after doing a lot of kaizen that we're can see the outline of the real gains as we imagine a new model for doing the activity.

As you start by improving anything that seems wrong, every where, you constantly ask - where are the improvement dimensions: how can I improve the flow, how can I improve quality, how can I improve square meter use, etc. and through the involvement of the people you start seeing answers.

A great thing about lean is when, through the kaizen work, you discover doors where you previously thought there was a brick wall, and then when you open the door you realize how large the room for improvement :^))



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Ethan Forrester December 17, 2015

Hi Michael,

I'm a mechanical engineer by training working in a plant that is going through some hard times. Recently the management team fired our 6-figure salary CI leader to save the $, and then came into my office and said “Look, we fired O’Malley – you’re CI lead now in addition to your regular standard work. Go to conferences, trainings, whatever, just learn enough about CI so you can take over the role in a few months.”

I have no experience with lean except following the lean principles that were already in place when I got here. Do you think I'm being set up to fail? Or can you think of any good tips to help me stay above water?

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Michael Balle December 17, 2015

Tough one Ethan. I doubt that you're being delibertately set up to fail, but it's a good question to ask and a good place to start. How would you define success for yourself in a way that would positively impact the company? As long as this remains unclear, and not shared, you're indeed in a tricky place.

Is your plant part of a larger corporate group where each plant has to tick the box "has a CI officer" or is it a smaller independent business?

The key question here is WHAT IS THE BUSINESS PERFORMANCE YOU'RE EXPECTED TO IMPROVE? If the business performance is making the plant look good to corporate, this is OK and legit, particularly if you're internally competing with work. In this case, don't look down on going to the conferences and learning to play the lean game (you'll meet many other people who do just that). If you learn to make your plant look good by couching plant efforts in CI terms, you are helping, and it's a good case of fake it till you make it - I'm not being sarcastic here, survival comes first.

If you intend to really learn TPS, then this is harder, because I don't believe any oen has ever done so without a sensei, which means that your negociation with your bosses should be around the budget they give you for sensei coaching. If they're giving you the double role save some $ it makes sense to ask them for a cut back in terms of support.

In any case, I'm going out on a limb here, but when given a difficult assignment, ask for 1) a clear success target - what is the goal post and 2) proof of support in terms of budget or access. If management is not willign to deliver on either, then you can legitilmately argue this is a BS assignement and pass on the opportunity.

Hope that helps, that all turns out well, and we'll see you often in the lean community ;^))

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Ethan Forrester December 17, 2015

THanks Michael!!!

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Lily Bourassa December 17, 2015

Michael, I'm a CI manager at an auto part factory. I've been trying to get my workers more involved in contributing suggestions for improvement but so far no luck, if im lucky i get maybe 2 post-its on the improvement board per week from a staff of over 300 and some weeks I get zero.I talked to a friend on the line and he says that some of the workers are afraid of sounding like they're criticising the top management. THat's not what I want them to think at all - what do you suggest for changing their perspectives? -lily

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Michael Balle December 17, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Automotive... you gotta love it :^)). For what it's worth, here's how I work with suggestions:

I get the area supervisor to set up a suggestions board with three columns: 

- suggestion (before, after, gain): the person's suggestion

- test: a way to test the suggestion without spending any money (cardboard, trial for a couple of hours, etc.)

- validation: getting the suggestion okayed by othe members of the team and the other shifts

- acceptation: getting the suggestion accepted by management

so essentially, the suggestion gets in the system once it's been well tried out, and the chances of acceptation are very high. There are three tricks to make this work:

1) make sure the person retains the ownership all along and that the supervisor understand he/she is there to encourage and support the suggestion process, not to steal the idea

2) get the supervisor to explicitly ask for suggestions when then see something that could be improved.

3) look for very small improvements, such as color coding tools, using smaller tupperware for this and that, stickers, etc. what matters is the flow of ideas not the payback on ideas.

What do you think? Not sure whether you can make this work in an automotive, but suggestions have to be baby-sitted.


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Janneke Korbee December 17, 2015

Hello Michael,

This Q&A session is great. I couldn't find a thing that wasn't already asked, but then I thought about a meeting I had this week with a lady who's facing pretty similar issues as I face.

My question: have you ever helped a governmental organization with a lean transition, and if yes, what are your experiences with the following items:

- defining the "customer": what standards are used if the customer isn't paying for services (like citizens or colleagues?)

- change the way of thinking about processes: governmental organizations are well known (at least in the Netherlands) for having endless (and likely a lot of useless) procedures. However, it is also the way people are used to work and changing these working processes is like saying that they haven't worked correctly in all these years (which may be true, from an outsider's point of view).

- cope with an almost infinite decision chain: it seems that everyone who has or has not anything to do with the actual item needs to say something about it, before a decision is made. Also, some higher ranked people need to say something about virtual anything for fear of losing their current status. I understand these issues and however sincerely I do support the idea of 'think ideas and plans thoroughly through, view from all angles, implement quickly', the latter doesn't seem to be possible. Have you any ideas on how to improve this without disrespecting the existing people in the chain?

- last but not least: I work in an organization with a lot of locations throughout the country. This means that every now and then, my colleagues and I do not work in the office. I find it very hard to improve continuously in this situation. The only day we're all together is one morning a week, but that is not enough. Can you help me look towards the right direction?

Thank you in advance for your reply.

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Michael Balle December 17, 2015

Hey Janneke,


Never had the privilege :^) the closest I've come to workign with a governmental organization wast the Post Office and... it didn't end well. As usual, successes on the Gemba, politics at the top, resistance in the middle and in the end just let slide.

However I remember the "banishing bureaucracy" movement in the 1990s from Osborne and Plastrick - really interesting stuff and I suspect still very relevant. I also met some people from Canada working in govt - I've got "we don't make widgets" and "extreme governemnt makeover" from Ken Miller on my shelves - not that lean, but interesting all the same.

In any environment, I look for four aspects:

1) who are the customers and how can we support their lifestyles?

2) how does this define outcomes and what kind of competitive pressure can we bring (in your case, who are your internal competitors or alternatives to your service)

3) what are the high impact and low impact wastes we can spot

4) of these which are the wastes we can attack through kaizen without investment

the key thing here is to realize that THE DYNAMIC CREATES PERFORMANCE, not the size (or number) of the problems you solve. 

Once you get a clearer picture on these four items, things get easier, simply because it's easier to engage people on getting moving. One of the difficult aspects of lean is that we want to create an environment where people understand the issues by themselves, which means we first need to understand the issues well enough to visualize them - demanding!

One thing we really need in government work then is a "maven" someone who does what Mark Graban does for healthcare and collects and posts all government initiative until there is a collective understanding of the field.

I realize that this doesn't answer your immediate questions, but before we can solve problems we've got to frame them, and before we frame them, we've got to find them, so, as often, the solution is not near to the problem itself, but we need to take a deep breath and look up to higher level objectives, learn as fast as we can and be ready to exploit lucky improvement successes to move the agenda forward.


Does that make sense?

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Janneke Korbee December 17, 2015

Hello Michael,

Thank you for your reply. In general, it makes sense and you have put me in the right direction.

I still have a question mark flying around my head regarding point 2: the government provides services without competition (either you take the service, or you don't and get fined or get nothing). We don't have any competitors for our service. This makes it hard to define outcomes, even if it's clear our service is not exactly what our 'customers' need to perform their duty or fulfill their need for information.

Searching for a maven will be hard, but not impossible. After the holidays, I will contact the lady to see if we can make this a joint effort.

I will also take a look into the books from Ken Miller. They sound pretty interesting.

For now, I wish you a very good evening and still a lot of interesting questions.

Reply »

Michael Balle December 17, 2015

Well, I currently work with train maintenance - no competitor, right? Still, it's pretty clear what a good outcome for customers is: more frequent, faster, more reliable, more comfortable trains. 

But we don't know how to do any of this. So we do a bit. Same thing, you probably find that the interests of customers (as in: users) and government don't align completely, and the argument "it's for their good" is valid statistically, but not for the individual in front of you.

therefore, the question is how to move from generic "customers" to specific cases and look at the specific circumstances of each person and find ways to make things a bit better.

Again, this is people we're talking about, so precision (not having to do the job twice), availability (be able to do at their conveniance, not when forced) and attitude (smile) has a huge impact - and hapier customers make staff happier as well.

So let's go back to basics - what are the five things you can think of of that would earn customers' smiles, and what are the five things you can think of that would make department worker's life easier. With this list of ten items, you can get kaizen going and see where it gets you :-))

Mary Farragon December 17, 2015

What do you find to be the most effective visual management tool for getting shop floor workers onboard with lean? I want to to start our lean transformation with a tool that really shows them how lean can help them do their jobs better! 

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Michael Balle December 17, 2015

I don't know how to do it with one, I need a couple at the outset. Lean is mostly "continuous flow - stop, quality problems, continuous flow, stop quality problems...

If you're working in a factory, start right away with consolidating truckloads at the same pace as customers use the parts or products (takt) and pull on the line by asking someone to pick up finished parts every two hours, then hour, then 20 minutes, then ten minutes. The slicing of time of pick up on the line is the visual tool that most helps workers pace themselves and see whether they're ahead or late.

The you need an hourly target versus actual with comments production analysis board for them to write down the obstacles they encounter to reach the target - assuming you can get the supervisor to visit the board once an hour, and discuss the problems with the guys.

Finally you need a tool like a red bin (to start with) or an andon to visualize problematic situaitons and get discussions on quality going - the first thing I'd set up if I could in terms of impact, but often hard to do. In THE GOLD MINE I only mention Jidoka at the end, although Bob Woods gripes about quality from the start, not because it comes last, but because western managers usually resist this very strongly.

In a service situation, as, say a hospital, I'd start with a visible plan for every patient and a way to see if the patient is going out at the planned date or later (and is so, why?) and a board to show the latest problems we've had and educate nurses to recognize conditions they shouldn't deal with on their own.

More or less the same tools: define outcome, output, and a place to write obstacles, and work with the people every day to take these obstacles away. What engages people in lean is the tension between the frequent pick ups and the recongition of problems to solve.

the thing to keep in mind is that visual tools are not about controlling workers, but orienting them so that they intuitively see at a glance what is OK or not OK for the customer, whether they're ahead or late, whether they work in good conditions and what the sequence of work is, so they know what to do next;

does that make sense?

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Michael Balle December 17, 2015

Hello everyone, going to turn in now - thank you all for your insightful questions, it's been tremendous fun and quite challenging :^) Best wishes on your lean journeys and happy end of year and season's holidays!

All the best, Michael

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CSN December 19, 2015

Hi Michael,

I am with a e-commerce company and we've been trying to develop lean culture.  But whenever we try to implement any lean concept we get to hear  "This is not toyota and it wont work here".  How do I approach the team in a way that they will understand the goodness that lean can bring in people & process.

Any suggestions?

Reply »

Michael Balle December 19, 2015

The story so far - as I pieced it together: back in the late seventies, early eighties, Toyota started spreading Just-in-time ideas across the supply chain and had to convince its suppliers to adopt zero defect, more felxible, frequent delivery of everything all the time, and met the resistance you can expect. 

Toyota then wrote the method, the TPS to show its suppliers how to grow sustainably and profitably within a just-in-time supply chain. As you visit Toyota suppliers decades later, you see that some took it on board, and thrived, but many other still resist it, and survive year after year, always close to the red line, automotive ain't kind.

I was lucky (although I didn't realize it at the time) to study when Toyota tried to teach TPS to its European suppliers when they started production in Europe in the early nineties. They were willing to teach, but few suppliers actually took them up on their offer. Most prefered continuing to suffer the brutal dynamics of auto industry.

Sure, there are barriers to entry. 1) it's hard to learn a new system of operations when you're a forty-something exec, it's like learning chemistry again. 2) there are very few true teachers around and finding your own sensei is part of the learning journey, which doesn't make it easy to get started. 3) the ideas marketplace is full of fake lean ideas which are a lot easier to grasp.

But, still, I've awlays wonder why so few people make the effort to learn TPS considering the energy they're willing to put in re-inventing lean, with lean six sigma, lean startup, lean innovation and the rest of the attempts to do lean bypassing the discipline of knowledge, and then having to expend more energy to justify why results are not forthcoming. I wonder about it because they could have worked less hard at learning true TPS, it always work, it gets results and its actually quite fun - go figure!

But there you are. People don't just want to prosper, they want to do it in their own terms. Many executives actually prefer to fail honorably than really succeed. What they seek more than anything else is having their ideas adopted, vindicated and when results are not there, explained away by "something else happened."

Learning TPS requires first to recognize there is something here valuable to learn to become more competitive regardless of the sspecifics of one industry, and considering the promised gains it's well worth our while to invest in learning this stuff. Few people ever do. No matter how many reports of how successful people get when they do, most leaders try work arounds rather than ever sitting down and asking out loud "okay, let's look into this TPS stuff, what is it really?"

Which is a long winded way to say that I don't know how to help you. The issue here is not one of lack of understanding, but lack of ambition. Your colleagues don't want to succeed sustainably and profitably, they want to carry one doing what they do, and deal with consequences, which is fair enough - it's a free world!

Lean - TPS outside of Toyota - is a method to achieve sustainable growth and profitability by growing one's competitive eddge. It's a fully develop set of goals, principles and techniques. Every person I know that has made the effort to really learn it (and not reinvent or take a small part and generalize) has done well with it, is happy to testify about it and does not come back? But do they really want it. 

I am frequently accused about being close-minded (probably true) and not looking at the wonderful stuff that has happened in lean design thinking, lean start-up, lean innovation and lean whatever since the TPS was formulated. I plead guilty - I've still have my hands full in undestanding TPS, and every time we try it in a different area, we more or less double the turns and double the margin, so hey, good enough for me...

It's not a question of "it won't work here", but of "I'm not so keen on gaining competitive advantage that I'm willing to learn this stuff, in theory and practice, and see how it would work here." You can fight misunderstanding, but not lack of ambition, or ambition for power rahter than knowledge.

In the end, the only answer I know to this question is to continue to figure out the ins and outs of the TPS system, work with those who are interested, and hope this will lead other to explore it as well. I've never succeeeded in convincing any one inone lean can bring. I ca teach those who want to learn, but not those who don't want to. The only anwser I'll have is invest in learning more yourself and see what this does - I realize this is not a very satisfactory response, but it's all I've got.

In the end, it might not matter that much - after all, it is a method to seek competitive advantage, so why should it be for everybody? ;^))

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Mohan December 21, 2015

Hi Mike,

I am your regular reader of your articles.Currently i am pursuing my Doctorate on Employee Engagement which is key for Lean Transformation for any organisation.

Currently i am working as process and capabilities Manager for my organisaion where in we need to support IT  applicaitons .I am trying to apply Lean  in it.As Lean focus on Emplyee engagement , I am wondering how Lean  can be applied in the scenario of  IT appliations.Or Still Lean can be used to simplify EPR process also .

Can you please guide or throw some insights on this .It would be of great help.

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Michael Balle December 23, 2015

Hi Mohan

Sure, lean thinking applies anywhere - it's just thinking after all. the question is where to start in a new environment.

Teh simplest (not always easiest) way to start thinking about how to lean your IT applications is to define performance in terms of output (what does the current system have to deliver and at what rhythm) and then outcome (what does it do for customers and how do they feel about it)

You can quite quickly come up with three visual boards:

1) A customer complaints board to log all customer complaints in terms of complaint, presumed cause, countermeasure to the customer, customer's opinion of the countermeasure's effectiveness (By the way, in IT this often raises the interesting question of who the customers are)

2) an output board to see plan versus actual with comments explaining the obstacles met,

3) a daily performance problem solving board with date, problem, cause, countermeasure, check, to look into one problem per day

With these threeboards in place and looked at daily, you will soon have some idea of:

1) what matters enough to customers that they actually complain about it

2) what performance problems are easy to solve

3) what problems are hard to solve, but could have a high impact in either customer satisfaction or team performance

the latter can then be targetted with team kaizen, until you understand two things:

1) the real capability problems you're facing to radically improve both output and outcome

2) a "true potential" vision of the service if the best results you've achieved with kaizen could be somehow replicated everywhere, and how this would change the game.

This vision will emerge slowly through the problem solving and allow you to first face your problems by creating the requisite indicators of dynamic progress, and then frame the overall objectives so that you can see the real improvement dimensions. Once you're clearer on both operational indicators and improvement dimensions, you can then continue to sustain daily learning and be ready to exploit the unlooked for lucky breaks that you'll get on the way to deliver better application service to your customers.

Patrick Peterson December 21, 2015


Do you have any experience implementing Lean in a transportaton LTL industry? We are 3-4 years into our journey and seem to have hit some roadblocks on adherence to standard work by our drivers and dock workers and front line leadership seeing the value in visual management. Our LTL system is different than mfg as there really is no beginning and end like a factory line. JIT ideas seem very hard to imagine in many areas and i almost thing that using TOC in combination with Lean would be a better choice. Your thoughts?

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Michael Balle December 23, 2015

Hey Patrick,

Have to say I haven't (I had to look up LTL on Google ;^)) but so far I have yet not found a field in which lean thinking doesn't deliver sizeable and sustainable results.

I hear what you're saying about resistance to visual management, and this is my daily fight as well. As long as shop floor management doesn't take visual management on board as the main way to manage, results go up and down. I was yesterday on the gemba with a construction company that has done very well with lean and is going through the worse industry crisis in living memory. Some project managers now use visual management routinely, but yesterday we were with the CEO on one project where the leader is quite good but still resisting the discipline of visual management - as a result his team was in the usual mess and dealing with a very difficult client. The CEO and I were stumped, the project manager is good, but we simply can't reach him on this point, and thus his teams are not autonomous and over dependent on him, and when things get tough, the project only relies on him, and unexpected bad things happen. Big sigh.

to your next comment, the trick is not to look at how JIT ideas can apply to your business, but formulated the JIT ideas "blindly" - there is no situation in which you can't calculate takt time (it's a calculation) or imagine continuous flow (imagine in a construction project, still, we were trying to visualize how wok could happen in every flat without ever a break in the flow of work - impossible as we stand, but we can visualize it) or how pull works in the situation even though we have no idea how to make it work.

this mental exercise IS lean thinking, and will get you to see your situation differently, and if you combine this with some leveled planning, daily performance problem solving to create or refresh standards and team kaizen to get teams (or departments) to better work together, you'll find that every year new ideas appear on how to make the business better and put pressure on competitors.

The fun of it is that these ideas we often don't see coming, they are indeed, new all the time, which balances the discipline of visual management and problem solving with exciting stuff.

Not sure that helps in you specific situation, but I find that:

1) plougin in the nitty-gritty of immediate performance and 2) taking a huge step back to look at flow through the entire business model, simultaneously, usually produces fresh insights and new opportunities for improvmeent.

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Saltanat Nigmetova December 29, 2015

Hello Michael,

I hope you can find time to answer my questions.

I've started work as a lean specialist in a manufacturing company that produces plastic pipes and fittings. I am new to lean but trying to learn and implement things in here. We started implementing 5S in some areas; we did standard time calculation for manual operator work, also started studying changeover closely to reduce c/o time, and now want to do VSM. 

Most of our products are done in one machine (injection molding machine or extruder). Only some have assembly work. So, if we decide to take a product family which requires an injection molding and then packaging only, we consider them as one processing station, right? (Packaging is done by the same operator controlling the injection molding machine straight after the product has fallen from the machine and while the second cycle is being done) When calculating inventory, do we calculate all the raw material although it is used in many products, not just the one we are doing VSM for? Or do we take the percentage needed for that specific product? or product family? Also for WIP, is it only WIP of the particular product or the whole product family? How can I get raw material inventory for a particular product? The thing is that Raw M. will be used for the product that was ordered and not kept for a specific product in general.

We have seasonal demand. Therefore, the CEO wants us to work now (not season) and save stock in order to prepare for the season when the production might have hard time meeting the demand. Now, we have raw materials and space to store things. Also, we started to keep stock of C type products in order to reduce number of changeovers during the season. How correct is it?

Lean is something new in this company. I am the only person responsible for lean initiative. My boss also knows about it and supports it but other managers, workers (some do), executives do not really know or accept it. So, I need to show good results in order to convince people and get them involved. What can you advise me to do, to get quick benefits of Lean?

P.S. How can I attach a picture to my comment?


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Michael Balle January 06, 2016

Hi Saltanat,

This is a really difficult question without seeing the gemba firsthand. From what you describe you're in a typical case of "flow if you can, pull if you can't." The ideal, of course, is to flow the assembly of parts with the injection press, but whether we can do this smartly depends of:

1) how is the customer takt time compared to the press cycle time - assembly work content can always be broken up at takt time, but the press is either underutilized if the takt si longer than the cycle time, or struggles if the takt is faster - so the first question to look into is the takt.

2) how good is the quality coming out of the press: can you assermble press parts as they come off the press, or do you need a finishing operation before they can be assembled. In any case, working on increasing the quality of press parts right first time is the key step to being able to flow pressed parts right into assembly.

3) how quick are the press change-overs and can you do small batches that can be assembled without requiring huge batches of assembly to follow the press.

It males perfect sense to create a "seasonal" fake client to produce all through the year the minimum customers take every year and only produce the surplus when real demand comes in, but this means tracking the process very closely to understand what is going on.

Yes, you need to show results, in three dimensions:

1) first you need to involve workers in making their job easier whilst improving quality in order to gain their acceptance,

2) you need to show the business potential in terms of either lower capital expenditure or higher productivity to gain management interest

3) you need to show you are learning yourself how to better press and assemble parts to be credible to both workers and management, and get the ear of your CEO.

Does that help?

Best wishes, Michael

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Saltanat Nigmetova January 20, 2016

Thank you very much for taking time and writing your response.

Sorry, I didn’t understand the part about “seasonal” fake client part. Could you, please, explain it again? 

The majority of products do not need any additional operations after being molded by injection molding machine/extruders. An operator just starts to pack products into bags and then boxes. Therefore, the machine processing and packaging should be considered as one station, right?

I also could not find an answer for the inventory calculation. “When calculating inventory, do we calculate all the raw material although it is used in many products, not just the one we are doing VSM for? Or do we take the percentage needed for that specific product? or product family? Also for WIP, is it only WIP of the particular product or the whole product family? How can I get raw material inventory for a particular product? The thing is that Raw M. will be used for the product that was ordered and not kept for a specific product in general.”

Sometimes we get defective parts and have machine stoppages. We need to reduce this time and eliminate the root causes of the problems.

I believe we need to have supermarkets for most of our products and use kanban cards to regulate their production. Do you think it is a good idea when you have more than 300 product types?

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