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Advice from the Gemba: Top Mistakes Lean Leaders Make III

by Lean Leaper
September 27, 2017

Advice from the Gemba: Top Mistakes Lean Leaders Make III

by Lean Leaper
September 27, 2017 | Comments (0)

Today we present the third installment in our popular Advice from the Gemba series on common mistakes made by lean leaders.

Dave LaHote (Faculty Member, Lean Enterprise Institute)

I find that leaders often go on gemba walks without a very clear purpose. I call it “going to be seen,” versus “Go and See.” They have the best of intentions. They want to show they are interested and that they support the people working in the gemba but sometimes it can be more like a politician on a stomping tour. More like a visit by a tourist than a visit by a leader of the organization. They take the location tour, look at the charts and graphs, encourage people, ask a few questions and make a point or two. They are doing things they think are helpful; but if they were asked, “What is the purpose of this walk?” many would struggle to give a precise answer.

I remember when I joined on a gemba walk with the president of an auto parts manufacturer. We were visiting his biggest plant. He was taking a tour and showing me points of interest. Here’s where we’re going to put in some new automated equipment. Here’s where we display our operational performance charts.  One could tell that we were basically just being shown his favorite things. In an area off to the side, there was a group of people standing around a table inspecting parts. I asked the president, “What are these people doing?”

He replied, “They’re inspecting parts. We’ve shipped some bad parts to one of our customers recently, and now they require 100 percent inspection before shipment.”

I asked him to show me the work cell where the parts are made, and to me it looked like it was just business as normal there. There seemed to be no serious activity to determine why they made bad parts in the first place; the activity was simply to inspect further downstream so they could meet the customer’s demands. To me the burning questions were why isn’t our process capable of producing a good part and why isn’t our management system addressing the problem in an aggressive fashion. The company president’s gemba walking seemed to have limited focus on the real work of making a quality product and instead was focused all on casual observations, big ideas, looking at graphs on display boards and talking about technical advancements. In my mind, the purpose of a walk by a senior leader should have been a “Check” on how well the plant’s management system was working. We should have been going to see for deep understanding not just casual observation. 

When you go to the gemba, check yourself to make sure you’re going to “Go and See,” not “going to be seen” and make sure you have a clear sense of purpose for your walks.

Editor's Note: Learn more from Dave LaHote in his new workshop, Sustaining Gains Using Daily Management: Gemba Based Workshop, to be held October 3-4 at Irwin Seating in Grand Rapids, Mich.


Clara Rivera (QI Project Management Specialist, Tufts Medical Center)

When beginning new projects, I find that lean leaders often fail to create a positive environment when their teams produce varying innovative ideas. Most recently, I witnessed a lean leader and her team reviewing a specialty-bed process map to help improve the cleaning process to reduce the spread of infectious diseases. The team consisted of nurses, clinical assistants, administrators, and patients, in addition to some other key stakeholder groups from IT and engineering. However, when the group collectively agreed on a potential intervention while brainstorming, the leader consistently used “Killer Phrases.” As I observed, I lost count of how many times, in that one-hour meeting, I heard the leader say “we tried that before,” “we won’t get anyone to agree to that,” “be practical,” “that won’t ever change,” “physicians will never be on board,” and “that’s good in theory, but it’ll never fly.” As a lean leader, this person’s “cannot” attitude to new, innovative ideas was only perpetuating the negative culture that many healthcare organizations have around change.

As a lean leader, it is necessary to wear multiple hats and play the challenger to new ideas; however, you can do this without inhibiting creativity within your team. A leader needs to find commonality among differing ideas and views. Additionally, to implement new changes, leaders need to create communication and action plans to build buy-in amongst various clinical units or departments. A major misstep of this lean leader was to not review decision-making styles at the start of the first team meeting. Often teams overlook this step, but had the team agreed on majority rules, authoritarian, consensus, or other forms of decision-making styles, they could have avoided the defeated feeling they got after proposing their ideas.


Don Scott (Vice President, Don Scott Associates, Inc.)

When we, as managers, report the results of a line-level waste reduction activity, we’re telling a story. And because we think that senior leadership is primarily interested in saving money, we usually tell that story in what we believe to be compelling terms: cost savings. We do this because we want to make the right impression on the leadership of the company. There’s the mistake. Senior leadership is not primarily interested in cost savings. If they were, wouldn’t they be on the floor with us during every project? No, senior leadership is interested in the same things we are: serving customers to grow the business. If we accept that view, and maybe even insist upon it, how does that change how we present our results? How can we tell a different story?

For me, the answer lay in re-framing my lean efforts in terms of capacity increase. Rather than my primary metric being labor costs saved, I focused instead on capacity. Consider that reducing waste increases capacity. Every pull system, every instance of visual management, every 5S initiative, every throughput improvement, increases the capacity of the direct labor force, but just as much increases the capacity of management. Every line-level waste reduction has a corresponding upstream increase in management capacity to take on new roles and pursue new opportunities. Senior management certainly wants to contain and reduce costs, so I would never advocate hiding cost savings. But they detest the idea that any asset goes under-utilized, be it a machine, a line-worker, a manager, or a whole department. Consider making this capacity increase your primary metric of improvement and presenting cost savings secondarily. The message then becomes we have more management capacity to pursue new opportunity and with the money we saved, we can accept the risk of pursuing it.

I often advocate to listen at least politely to what people say, but intently to what they mean. Reflecting on my own interactions with senior management let me see that there was more common ground than there appeared. When I rephrased the results of just a few line-level improvements as a story of nearly 1000 hours of increased management capacity, I was able to ask, “How are we going to use that capacity to grow this business?” and “Can I use some of that time for training and expanded cross-functional involvement in new projects?” Using the same data to tell a different story resulted in middle managers suddenly seeking my advice (doubtless under direction to do so) on their own problems. Then, a facility-wide flow improvement project moved from proposed to approved, and I found myself included in management meetings at a much higher level. So, if you don’t want lean to be “all about cost reduction,” don’t present it that way. If you do, don’t be surprised when the response is “That’s great! Do more of that.”  

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  coaching,  gemba,  leadership,  management
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