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Do You Own Your Lean Learning?

by Mark Reich
March 29, 2017

Do You Own Your Lean Learning?

by Mark Reich
March 29, 2017 | Comments (10)

Before I worked for Lean Enterprise Institute I worked for Toyota in an organization called the Toyota Supplier Support Center (TSSC), which helps companies in a variety of industries that are interested in the Toyota Production System.

One trip brought me to the largest coffee plant in the nation. When I first visited that plant they shared a fascinating statistic: they produce, every 30 seconds, the amount of coffee that an average person drinks in a lifetime. The plant manager there was Andrea. She was bright, young, motivated and a high-potential performer.

And she knew almost nothing about production.

Andrea had a very specific and very big problem to solve. Corporate wanted to shut down another operation in Kansas City and transfer all production to her plant in New Orleans. Andrea was tasked with figuring out how to make that happen. Corporate had also asked TSSC to work with her to help her solve that problem. Andrea, being bright and motivated, had the “solution” to this issue: invest in new equipment and expand the plant to support the new workforce and its production requirements. She just wanted to know how TSSC could help with that.

But on further investigation, together we learned that the operational availability of the current equipment in New Orleans was only 60 percent. So in fact, if we could increase that to 80 percent, we could bring in the Kansas City production without needing any additional equipment.

But how to do that? Andrea insisted it was impossible. The equipment was old, it had never run much above 60 percent, and she did not see the need to investigate. The people running the equipment knew best, she insisted. I tried to convince Andrea that it might be valuable to really go and see the equipment and confirm why it didn't run. She resisted and avoided. So what to do?

I pulled in a member of her team, and for three days we watched the production line together. We zeroed in on a particular problem – the case erector. This was a machine that constructed boxes the coffee would get packed in – and it shut down often. But by simple observation, we found the reasons it often shut down.

Flat boxes were shipped from a cardboard supplier on skids of 100 at a time. The boxes were banded together by the supplier, but too tightly. This would distort the shape of the boxes, particularly those on the top and bottom of the stack. When those distorted boxes ran through the machine, it would fault and shut down the line. This happened multiple times a day. This was not the only problem with the case erector, but it opened the door for further investigation.

We set up a time for Andrea's staff member to show her the problems we found. After seeing this, Andrea changed. She spent more time on the floor, observing the line and focusing on issues with why the line shut down. My purpose became to develop Andrea to see and solve problems. By coaching, not by telling. Out of this, Andrea learned problem solving and how to approach the floor, and in the process ultimately saved the company $50 million.

So why am I telling the story about Andrea? Because it had a big impact on me as to understanding my purpose and role as external support for her. The experience also clarified my understanding of the role of line leadership in continuous improvement.

Let's think about the story in the context of two questions:

  1. What are organizations looking for from lean, particularly their leaders?
  2. How does leadership approach bringing lean into an organization?

Many leaders think lean will help them become more competitive, and it can. First they just need to find a way to bring it into their organization.

Their answer is often to hire a consultant or set up an OpEx group to implement the lean program. This is what Andrea did: she hired TSSC to solve her problem. It is how leaders approach most decisions.

But in the context of lean, this doesn't work. The leader has to own the problem solving. When organizations set up OpEx groups or hire consultants, there is some immediate expectation to justify the work. So the outcome is the consultant feels the need to generate his or her own results. And in turn, line leadership feels that any improvement measure is being forced on them, and they don't own it. But they need to own it.

Yes, the OpEx department can certainly support this. But this kind of support is not meant to solve the problems of the organization, but rather support the development of leadership to solve their own problems. So the role of OpEx in lean becomes not to answer questions, but to ask the right questions that drive learning.

Andrea brought in TSSC thinking we would solve the problem for her. But in the end, she learned that we were there to develop her to ask questions and investigate the key challenges in the organization so that she could lead and sustain improvement. And by extension, it helped build the capability in Andrea to develop other problem solvers in the organization.

Over the next few months I will be publishing more articles exploring this misconception about the role of OpEx departments in lean. Stay tuned.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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10 Comments | Post a Comment
kevin kobett March 29, 2017
3 People AGREE with this comment

"And she knew almost nothing about production."

How can someone like this be plant manager? Sounds like the biggest lean problem is the hiring process. Wouldn't it be better to hire someone that doesn't need a radical change to do the job. What's high potential? Good grades in college. Are good grades an indicator of lean success? Sounds like a common problem.

$50,000,000 cost savings?

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Mark Reich March 29, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Good comment. Perhaps I exaggerated a bit for effect. She had a superficial knowledge of the floor and some experience, however no "real" knowledge of the floor that allowed her to support problem solving.   But I have found that many big companies rotate people into positions they are not ready for with little support.  

Yes, $50M. They were looking at plant expansion, equipment purchases, and an entire re-layout of the plant.  Companies don't realize the hidden dollars in bad Operational Availaibility. I've done my own studies and generally companies use about 50% of their capacity.  

So they buy new equipment, add new locations or expand space. Waste. 

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kevin kobett March 30, 2017
2 People AGREE with this reply

The plant manager accepted bad boxes and made the operators run the defective product without assistance. The boxes should never have made it past receiving. 

Her main task, getting the plant ready for increased production was assigned to you and one her staff.

I understand how you got the $50,000,000.

On her resume, she will claim a $50,000,000 cost savings. Someone reads that and the search is over, she is hired. Based on this post, she does not deserved to be promoted.

We need to do a better job hiring lean leaders. Resumes are worthless. I like the story aspect of your post. Before I hire a lean leader, they must send me five lean stories. I will dig into those stories to find their contribution. Hiring the wrong person is devastating.

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Nelson March 30, 2017

There are many "plant managers" (called "Hospital CEOs" in healthcare) who don't know anything about operations either. Or even the COO. Sad. But they end up in those jobs for either reasons -- politics, whatever.

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Emmanuel March 29, 2017

Thank you Mark,

You bring to the lean community a deep understanding of what lean really is.

Perhaps you should dig deeper about what actually means develop capabilities at Toyota.

This because anyone can't be changed. In fact everyone resist to change brought by outsiders.

The second point you can also dig deeper is what is said By Sammy Obara sensei: "Another key skill my managers had was their deep knowledge of the lean techniques."

My thinking is that you can't coach people if you don't own the lean techniques, learned the hard way on the shop floor, everyday.

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Mark Reich March 29, 2017

Good comments and I appreciate the insights for future posts.  As is written above I plan to expand on this post  for future posts and I'll include your thoughts.

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Ralf Lippold March 29, 2017

Thanks a lot Mark for sharing your experience in a field quite different from Toyota's core business. I immediately got reminded of my time at BMW (as an economist, working on the edge between IT and operations). Back when I started there lean was not used in explicit words, and generally, it was the task to improve operations with scaling of production. 

Normally based in the office, a floor above the shop floor, when things went differently than expected I asked the colleagues on the shop floor whether they had some spare time to show me the context that had supposedly led to the issues. 

They always were more than open to do so, and while learning more about the process (I am really not an expert in the technical processes building a car) I had the chance to capture the whole picture as seen from a "kid's eye". When I then asked some questions like, "Why do you do this in this specific way?" often the answer was, "Because this was the specs when we started a year ago!" or "A planner in Munich had laid out the process.".

Quickly it became clear how they themselves were able not only to fix the problems at hand, but rather learn on how to cope with similar issues in the future knowing how and where to ask the right questions (actually without me interfering in their work).

Process improvement in the context of my work generally is not about cost cutting rather how to create more value with given resources in shorter time, and higher quality (and as a side-effect learn about where to use the learnings as well in other areas).

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Mark Reich March 29, 2017

Thanks for your comments. Yes, similar to what you said, I had never seen a Case Erector(as explained in this post) before I set foot in this plant. Key is close observation and sticking clearly to a structured, rigorous  problem solving approach which Toyota had taught me. 

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AJ March 29, 2017

Very good and candid expression of thoughts! Looking forward to your next one....

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Harry Kenworthy April 04, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Hi Mark - this is spot on.  In our business as Lean consultants and coaches to government we see the same things.  Many government entities want the consulting firm to come in, interview internal and external personell, look at the process in detail, and produce a report with a series of recommendations.  This is a normal government paradigm. We always ask clients who owns the report - and the answer is the consulting firm, not the client.  A large university paid a national firm over $4 million to study all aspects of how the university could be more efficient and save money and when we asked the CFO how much had been done after a year, his guess was 10%.  

This whole approach is generally waste.  We work with clients to facilitate and coach so they identify the problem, set up the team, do the pre-work and take the journey to truly learn to see the currrent state, develop the future state, have a singular process owner to follow through with us on site as a coach.  The difference in ownership is huge along with execution and results.


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