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Ask Art: “Do lean conversions actually go smoothly, like in the books?”

by Art Byrne
September 19, 2017

Ask Art: “Do lean conversions actually go smoothly, like in the books?”

by Art Byrne
September 19, 2017 | Comments (10)

Well, of course not. In fact, I can guarantee you that at least in the beginning (say the first couple of years) you will probably be creating or uncovering as many problems as you are solving. This is only common sense. After all, lean is almost the complete opposite of everything you have been taught in your traditional batch state. You are trying to go from batch to flow, from push to pull, from command-and-control to out-front hands-on leadership and from functional departments to value stream organizations. To be successful everything must change, from the way you do sales and marketing, to your accounting system, to your IT systems, to your human resources approach. What could go wrong?

Let’s start with the resistance of your senior management team and most likely your entire workforce. “This will never work here.” “We are not like those other companies.” “We tried something like this once and it failed.” You can push through this and start down the lean path anyway, but every time a problem arises, even several years into your lean journey, you will hear “See, I told you it wouldn’t work,” followed by a strong push to go back to the old way of doing it. And they will have plenty of ammunition.

Let’s take a few manufacturing examples first. When you move equipment from functional departments with six- to eight-week lead times into one-piece-flow cells, the fact that you haven’t maintained your equipment very well will jump out and bite you. If a machine in one of 10 functional departments in a batch state broke down, the machines in the other nine departments could keep working; and you had six to eight weeks to solve the problem due to all the excess inventory you had available. In a flow cell, however, if one machine stops then the other nine stop as well and you have a crisis. It will impact your customers. What do you do?

Another inevitable disruption will be the impact of doing many kaizens to make improvements as this reduces capacity during the kaizen week. You will probably fall behind. Moving from functional departments to value streams means that you will have to move all of your equipment, often multiple times, which will impact your capacity and ability to respond to customers. You can achieve a 90 percent reduction in setup time during a one week kaizen but getting it to stick is difficult and takes a great deal of management effort. Moving to one-piece-flow cells means that your operators now might have to be able to run eight to 10 machines in a cell, whereas in the batch state they only had to run one. You will need to train them. This takes time and reduces capacity while it is happening. It also might create pushback from the work force or arguments with the union if you have one.

The new one-piece-flow cells might have trouble producing to takt time at first and if production planning doesn’t take this into consideration you will cause stock-outs. Reducing inventory takes away your safety net and will cause stock-outs if you don’t do it correctly (first WIP, then raw, then finished goods). Getting your vendors on board is a whole other problem. The pressure to reduce inventory will have your people trying to get vendors to consign inventory instead of going to daily deliveries. This will result in even more inventory than you had before taking up space that you were trying to free up.

You will find that things you never paid attention to will suddenly become major issues, like not having spare parts for your various production tools. You can no longer wait two or three weeks for the tool room to make you a new spare part. In fact, you have to create a new approach where the tools are always ready when needed, no excuses. Or what if your new daily delivery box supplier has set up problems and can’t deliver till the next day? He could shut you down for half a day or more.

In non-manufacturing companies problems also pop up, although they may be slightly different in nature. I once helped a life insurance company address the problem that it was taking them 48 days to respond to a quote. They were divided into two departments: the underwriters and the case managers who worked with the underwriters. The underwriters were underwriting about 15 lives per week but the kaizen showed they were capable of doing more than 100 per week. We set up a cell with one underwriter and four case managers sitting together working as a team. At first, we isolated them physically as they considered it an experiment. It made great progress but when they finally brought this change back in the main underwriting area the managers separated the team on the basis that it was “unprofessional” for the underwriters to have to sit with the case managers, and so the whole thing collapsed. We reconstituted the cell in the underwriting area and got back on track. When I insisted that they post an hour-by-hour visual control board in their cell so that they and everyone else could see their progress they were horrified. “Definitely not professional.” We made it stick and this cell was soon responding to half the quotes in less than 20 days and the underwriters were doing 88 lives per week instead of 15. But boy, there were a lot of problems along the way.

The same was true in various hospital kaizens that I ran. In one emergency room kaizen, the head of the blood lab refused to make any changes to her department despite the fact that the kaizen pointed out a number of sensible improvements. In the same kaizen the head of the emergency room and the head of the diagnostic imaging lab got in a shouting match out in the hall one morning over changes that were needed in the diagnostic lab to improve the flow in the ER. Or the unfortunate case during a kaizen in the hospital laundry, where the supervisor of the department sorting the dirty laundry before sending it to the washing machines got so upset over the changes that we proposed that he punch his manager in the face and put him in the hospital for a couple of days. This of course is an extreme example that you shouldn’t have to worry about; but anything is possible.

Some of these examples point out why most companies are not successful in converting to lean. When issues pop up, and people are challenged or even made uncomfortable, management gets concerned and backs off—or worse, simply retreats to their traditional approach. It takes leadership and determination to push through all the problems you will encounter. The kaizen results will show you what is possible and tell you why you want to keep pushing forward. Getting the kaizen results to stick, however, is a whole other matter. You need management commitment if you are to be successful. The good news is that the rewards for a successful lean conversion are very significant for all involved, your customers, your employees, your shareholders and your community. So, don’t be afraid; take the lean leap, and when you encounter problems, fix them one-by-one and keep leaping.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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Mark Graban September 19, 2017

”In one emergency room kaizen, the head of the blood lab refused to make any changes to her department despite the fact that the kaizen pointed out a number of sensible improvements.“

This illustrates the challenges of change. I doubt the lab manager was a bad person or lacked sense. Was the lb manager involved in the Kaizen event?

It’s a natural human reaction to resist changes that are pushed on them, even if the change is positive. Management refusing to back off (pushing harder and louder) only increases resistance and might lead to compliance... which isn’t the pathway to excellence. 

See Ron Oslin’s recent LEI webinar on this topic. 

Facts and logic and being right are not enough to guarantee that change will be accepted and agreed to. 



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art byrne September 19, 2017

Mark, yes the blood lab manager was on the kaizen team. Yes she was bright and very capable. On the first day however she announced that while she would participate on the team she would not allow any changes in her area. All suggested changes were of course for the benefit of the paitents of the hospital but protecting her feifdome was more important. We still made improvements but nothing was forced on her that I can recall.



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Mark Graban September 20, 2017
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I'd suggest to readers who find themselves in a similar situation that the lab manager's "resistance" is the starting point for the conversation about change, not the end of it. 



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Mark Graban September 19, 2017

I am also curious in which books Lean transformation is portrayed as easy...



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Michael Ballé September 19, 2017
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Thank you Art for a great, truthful piece.

Absolutely, on the gemba, everyone would like things to change but hates having to change.

I definitely think we could all always be kinder, in some way or form, in the way we bring change. But I've also witnessed some completely unreasonable emotional reactions to banal change suggestions.

The underlying issue, I believe, is trust. We try to dismiss emotions from work, but emotions are what we are - both positive and negative. Positive emotions of excitement and pride and togetherness get us through the toughest changes. Negative emotions of anger, or loss of face, or downright defiance can deflate the best intentions.

When the trust is solid, we just through it. Someone has a bad day, blows their top off, or thinks this is a really really bad idea. Then tempers cool down, system 2 cranks up and things get sorted out. Sometimes the angry resistant person turns out to be absolutely right.

But when there is low trust, and people feel burned out, then  any change is an issue. I recently had such a person stop an entire improvement effort from an operating theatre team that was finally coming together, and the sheer negativity and union fuss this one person made just stoped everyone in their tracks. As a result, the theatre is still not being cleaned and patients are catching unnecessary infections.

Not every one has to accept changes, not every one wants to  work with the challenge of continuous improvement, and not every one has to stay. I'm not talking about firing people, I'm talking about makign the best choices for any one person to succeed in their terms.

We definitely need more posts like this, and open up to the key role of emotions in improvement, both the positive and the negative. Scientific thinking has a lot to do with distinguishing what we like/don't like from what works/doesn't work, but emotions drive us, and are a key part of the lean story. Mutual trust is also a key part of the kind of lean we want to do, and this trust can be damaged accidentally by people over - or under - reacting.

Tempers can heat up on the gemba. And that's a good thing!



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Mark Graban September 19, 2017
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Michael - Just because you think somebody’s reaction is “unreasonable” doesn’t make them wrong. Doesn’t “respect for people” mean trying to understand why somebody is upset, or at least recognize the brain science that says people get scared even by changes that they think are positive? This isn’t about being kind, it’s about effective change. Change is a process. I think leaders need to respect that change process that goes on inside each person’s brain. And respect the idea that people are emotional creatures. 



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Claire Everett September 20, 2017

This is an interesting question, because I think that many authors and Lean practitioners have an inclination towards talking more about the parts of transformations where things go right than where things go wrong. 

It's not surprising really that most books talk about what a companies results were and what they became after the transofrmation and show an impressive change.  Or that they talk about different projects that produced dramatic improvements.

It's also not surprising that they don't talk about the fact that some employees found the changes so uncomfortable that they resigned or that people lost their tempers with eachother or with the process.  Or that sometimes making the change is the easy part and preventing backsliding is far more difficult.

There's a natural inclination to focus on what worked well rather than what could have been better, especially when you're communicating that message to many people as you do with a successful book.

So while Lean transformations are far from being smooth, the parts that seem to be going worst, often have the most potential to create improvements if you can move people past the resistance somehow.  Afterall peoples emotions get involved when they care, and they have to care to want to improve.



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art byrne September 21, 2017

Claire thanks for your great adds to the post. Lean is all about people and that's what makes it hard. Even so, I have found over and over again that some of the strongest resistors initially turn out to be the best and strongest lean advocates once they get to understand it a bit better. So, never jump to conclusions about people too early, they will always surprise you. Art.



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Claire Everett September 21, 2017

I hated Lean when I was first introduced to it (although we didn't call it Lean).  It was not a good introduction, my local management did not understand what Lean can do or what it should look like, so it closely resenbled a cost cutting exercise.

The first project I was forced to do had nothing to do with my job, I was voluntold becasue I'm good with numbers.  The project was a disaster.

I ended up telling my bosses boss that I would resign if forced to do another project.

Luckily things changed, managements understanding of lean began to evolve and one day I found a tool that I knew I could use to improve one of my biggest pain points and I though "wow, this is good for something". Three years later I was leading the program in my area.

I look for other people like me in the business who've had a bad experience and ask them to forget the whole program, just find one thing that they can use that will make their job easier.  Once they do that and it works, they tend to look for the next thing they can use and it progresses from there. It's been quite successful.



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art byrne September 21, 2017

Claire, what a great story thanks for sharing. I think sometimes that it is easy to forget that with lean the thing you are trying to transform is the people. Helping them to make their jobs easier and safer gets a lot of buy in. Lean only happens one step and one person at a time. Art.



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