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Ask Art: Am I Showing Respect for People by Asking for Fast Action?

by Art Byrne
May 7, 2018

Ask Art: Am I Showing Respect for People by Asking for Fast Action?

by Art Byrne
May 7, 2018 | Comments (6)

Absolutely you can. In fact, in my opinion, going slowly shows a distinct lack of respect for your people. Many people argue for a slow steady approach. They say people don’t like change and therefore you should be careful about how much you ask of them in a given period of time—surely you don’t want to cause more problems and ill feeling than you solve. I can understand this on a certain level. If you are starting down the lean path as CEO and you don’t understand lean all that well yet, you may want to start slowly until you start to see some tangible results. I can also understand why some lean consultants might recommend a slow approach so that they don’t upset the client and lose the business.

But while I can cut the CEO some slack here, not so much for the lean consultant. Back when I was a Group Executive with The Danaher Corporation working with the ex-Toyota Shingijutsu consultants, on our very first day we started with a very short (about 100 yards) plant tour, then came back to the conference room where they wrote NO GOOD up on the board in huge letters. They turned to us and said “Look, everything here is no good, what do you want to do about it?” We formed two teams.

Over lunch that very day, team one wound up moving about 8 machines (that had not been moved for 15 to 20 years since they came to the plant) to form our first cell; team two was told to get rid of all the conveyer belts in final assembly (all of our assembly lines were conveyer belt driven). BANG. We were off and running with Shingijutsu pushing us all the way. Whatever happened to that kind of coaching? No asking why, why, why—just do it!

The common theme here is that the move to lean from a traditional batch approach is all about people. The thing you are trying to transform are the people. You have an obligation to protect their jobs, grow their skills and thus their value; and give them a chance for some wealth creation. The move to lean is the best way to achieve all of these. The main thrust is to teach all your people how to see and remove the waste that exists in all your current processes. You are trying to create a learning environment where everyone is constantly learning and contributing to the organization. Every time an improvement is made, learning occurs. The faster you go the more learning can occur. 

Lean is a “learn by doing” exercise not a classroom training approach. The best method I know to achieve this is through a sustained high level of kaizen activity. The teams should consist of both hourly and salaried members and focus on achieving big gains in a short (one week is pretty normal) period of time. No more “check your brains at the door” mentality. The best ideas will always come from the people doing the work. Their ideas and suggestions will finally be listened to and acted upon. Everyone on a kaizen team is equal from the CEO on down. Everyone is expected and encouraged to contribute their ideas and let the team implement them. It doesn’t take long for this sense of teamwork to start to spread throughout the company. The more kaizens you do, the faster it spreads.

I happen to agree with the general rule that people don’t like change. It takes them out of their comfort zone and can be a little scary. But I also think that people have a built-in competitive gene as well. They will rise to a challenge and take great pleasure in winning. No one wants to be on the losing team. I also don’t think people come to work wanting to do a bad job. They want to go home feeling that they made a contribution, and they want to be recognized for what they achieved. Unfortunately, the traditional batch approach treats the most valuable asset, your value added workers, as if they don’t count for much. No one has time to listen to their suggestions. They are there to “just make the number.” The process of moving to lean reverses all of this and starts to get every individual contributing to remove the waste. Their ideas and opinions are listened to and people’s sense of self-respect goes way up.

There are other even more important ways that pushing for rapid and dramatic change shows respect for your people, ways that involve safety and ease for your people. If, for example, I know that every time we set up a one-piece-flow line that the work gets much easier and safer for my associates, why wouldn’t I want to make things safer and easier as fast as I could? If it took 2 hours to change over a machine before the kaizen and 9 minutes after the kaizen don’t you think the operator's job is much easier and safer now? I can promise you that the operator appreciates the help and support to make this happen. At Wiremold it used to take roughly 2.5 hours to change over an injection molding press. We had to use an overhead crane which I always thought was very dangerous. When we went to side loading the presses, the setup time dropped into the 1-2 minute time frame and the risk of a mold falling on someone went away. If I know that we can make these improvements for our people, why not make them as soon as possible? If I run two kaizens per week per facility and the “you need to go slow” people run one kaizen every 6 weeks I believe I am showing great respect for my people and the go slow boys are not.

Now some people say that making rapid changes means you are stuffing things down people’s throats and not everyone will be happy. There certainly is some truth to this if you go about it the wrong (traditional) way. I even agree with the fact that not everyone will be happy at first. In fact, people will raise many objections at the beginning about even starting down the lean path, “This will never work here,” “We aren’t like those other companies.” etc., etc. I can tell you from experience, however, that the most active resisters up front often become the biggest lean advocates once they understand the approach better. I remember early on at Danaher we created a one-piece-flow machining cell by moving a bunch of machines near each other in a U shape. Well, a couple of operators made all sorts of noise about this. It wasn’t safe, they said, they didn’t like standing up etc. etc. We explained everything to them and asked them to give it a try. We came back a couple of weeks later and found a bunch of happy campers who on their own had moved the machines even closer together and said, “Hey, why didn’t you do this sooner?”

As for stuffing things down people’s throats: this is always a bad idea. Unfortunately, it is the way most traditional batch companies do things. This way couldn’t be more different than with lean, where the changes are made through kaizen teams where the people doing the work have an equal, in fact in most cases a bigger, say in the changes that get made. No stuffing allowed. 

That said, it remains vital that management set stretch goals for the company and the kaizen teams, a practice that some of the go-slow crowd would consider “stuffing”. I disagree. Setting stretch goals to me shows tremendous respect for your people. You are making a statement that you believe they can accomplish great things even way beyond what they think they can do. You will have to use all the kaizen tools and a lot of consistent leadership and encouragement to get them there. Their first reaction to the target, “We need to get this 14 hour setup under 10 minutes”, will be one of disbelief, “He must be nuts.” But I can tell you there is no better feeling than watching how proud they are when they achieve or beat (in this case the setup was reduced to 6 minutes) the goal. That is not stuffing. We set a goal that because of our lean experience we knew was possible even if the team did not understand that yet. We then helped them achieve the goal and were happy to celebrate with them.

This basic principle applies beyond setting stretch goals. Bringing on new people through acquisitions is another area where bringing people up to speed immediately is the truest way to show respect. Traditional companies making an acquisition typically spend 6-12 months analyzing everything and coming up with a plan of how to proceed. In the meantime, the employees of the acquired company are left to wonder what will happen next. I don’t think this shows much respect for people. At Wiremold, where we ended up doing a total of 21 acquisitions, we developed a standard work approach. The Monday after the acquisition was complete we would arrive at the company and bring all the employees together for an orientation. The first part was an overview of Wiremold, our strategy, our profit-sharing program, our history etc. Then we gave everyone a Wiremold shirt and had a short coffee break. After that we gave a 2.5 hour overview of lean conducted by me. Right before lunch we put the names of the people who would be on the first kaizen teams on the board. These first teams would begin after lunch and continue for the rest of the week. We explained to everyone else that they would also be on kaizen teams as soon as we could. 

We always achieved great gains on these initial kaizens. We moved a lot of equipment in the first day or two. The new associates made most of the contributions and the work immediately became a lot safer and easier. It was probably a shock to their system for sure but not only did they benefit from the gains right away but it was clear to everyone how things would be going forward. There was no long waiting period with people wondering what would happen.

Of course there will be many hurdles along the way. Even going at a very rapid pace a lean turnaround is a journey not a sprint, and will take years. Transforming the people is difficult. If you go slow however, say one kaizen every 6 weeks, the chances are high that the resisters will win and the whole lean effort collapses. Going fast and creating a learning environment will assure that lean will stick. It will become your culture. So, respect your people. Help them to make their work safer and easier. Push them to expand their skills. Use profit sharing to help them benefit from the improvements they make. It is going to take you ten years or so to even get partway down your lean journey, even with an aggressive effort. Don’t play around, just do it.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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6 Comments | Post a Comment
james considine May 07, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Great article Art -- does the approach change at all in a transactional environment? How did you approach the non-manufacturing value streams with the method you describe for the factory floor?

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Xavier Abadia ex Esselte May 07, 2018
2 People AGREE with this reply

Dear Art,

Sure you are showing a lot of respect for asking fast action, fast action is good for high capacity people.

Lack of respect is shown when you are asking easy or boring tasks to high performance people-teams.

Xavier Abadia

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art byrne May 07, 2018

Xavier, great to hear from you. Thanks for your comments. I agree 100% For the rest of you, Xavier knows about this from first hand experience. As plant manager of Esselte's plant in Barcelona, I left him lots of homework everytime I visited. A lot of it included big challenges but he always completed it before my next visit and wound up having outstanding results. To learn more, don't ask me ask Xavier.

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art byrne May 07, 2018

James, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. As for your first question, I assume by transactional environment you are talking about an acquisition or perhaps in a private equity environment where companies are bought with the intention of being sold again. In either case nothing changes. You always want to run a company as if you will own it forever. If anything the need for speed increases in a private equity environment as you are typically thinking of a 4-5 year time horizon. As for the non manufacturing value streams the approach was the same as on the shop floor. Mixed teams with lots of kaizen activity. In fact at Wiremold our first kaizen was in order entry, an office function, but one that had a big impact on everything else. Art.

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Claire Everett May 07, 2018

Great question James, I'd love examples of how this approach could be used in banking, a stock brokerage or similar environments where the work is transactions rather than physical products.

We get lots of examples of lean being applied in manufacturing and hospitals, I'd love to see examples from a broader range of industries.

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art byrne May 08, 2018

Claire, thanks for your question. The opportunities in industries where the work is more "transactions" as you put it, are even greater than in manufacturing. These businesses have processes just like manufacturing its just harder to see what is going on. As a result the waste is even bigger. For example if there are 30 steps in processing a loan application at a bank, a value stream map will highlite the fact that only 6 or 7 of these steps are value adding. The current 3 week + processing time can therefore be reduced to <10 minutes [without a big new computer program]. I once helped a life insurance company with its underwriting process. At the start it took about 48 days to respond to a request for insurance [i.e. underwrite/quote it] and an underwriter was underwriting about 15 lives per week. After kaizen more than 50% of requests were responded to in less than 20 days and the underwriter was doing 88 lives per week. In other areas, Jean Cunningham, co-author of the book Real Numbers, has been helping companies improve their office processes for years. It is pretty common for her clients to go from taking three and a half weeks to close the books at the end of a month to taking 3 days, thus freeing up a lot of capacity to focus on more important analysis that can help management make better decisions.

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