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Why Lean Transformations Fail: Problem Solving Is a Problem

Pella, IA, October 29, 2012 – A company’s “attitude towards problems” will determine if it succeeds or fails at a lean management transformation, according to John Shook, CEO of the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute.

“If your organization has a culture of hiding or ignoring problems, your lean transformation will not be successful until you overcome those habits and create a culture of exposing problems for all to see and deal with them openly," said Shook, responding to audience questions about why some lean transformations fail during a training session hosted by the Iowa Lean Consortium.

About 200 managers from manufacturing, healthcare, government, and service organizations attended the full-day session October 2, 2012, at Vermeer Corporation, Pella, IA.

“We know problems are everywhere in a business,” said Shook. In order for lean tools and practices to work, a corporate culture must support having the actual work identify problems and people engage in solving them.  For example, if a worker stops a production line due to a quality problem, he or she signals there is a problem. The area manager responds immediately. Together they use problem-solving tools to get to the root cause of the problem or agree on a countermeasure.

“The process of doing the work is integrated with the process of improving the work, and the operating processes are people development processes,” Shook said.

Collaborative Lean Learning

Learning collaboratively – when two or more people work together to solve a problem, complete a task, create a product, or answer a question – can accelerate a lean transformation, because  the conversion requires dispersing learning through an organization quickly and effectively.

Shook identified the elements of successful collaborative lean learning as:

  • All learner partners actively participate
  • Mutual Respect:Openness in sharing experience, knowledge, challenges, struggles
  • Teachers are learners; learners are teachers
  • Problems to be addressed are important and challenging to all partners

About John Shook

Lean Enterprise Institute Chairman and CEO John Shook learned about lean management while working for Toyota for nearly 11 years in Japan and the U.S., helping it transfer production, engineering, and management systems from Japan to NUMMI and subsequently to other operations around the world. While at Toyota's headquarters, he became the company's first American kacho (manager) in Japan. His last position with Toyota was as senior American manager with the Toyota Supplier Support Center, Lexington, KY, assisting North American companies implement the Toyota Production System. He is the author of Managing to Learn and co-author of Learning to See and Kaizen Express. His article "How to Change a Culture: Lessons from NUMMI"; Sloan Management Review, January 2010, won Sloan’s Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize for outstanding article in the field of organizational development.   

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What is Lean?

The terms lean manufacturing, lean production, or lean management refer to a complete business system for organizing and managing product development, operations, suppliers, customer relations, and the overall enterprise. It requires less capital, material, space, time, or human effort to produce products and services with fewer defects to precise customer desires, compared with traditional modern management.

Toyota pioneered lean management as a complete business system after World War II. During the late 1980s, a research team headed by James Womack at MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program coined the term “lean” to describe Toyota’s system.

About the Lean Enterprise Institute
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc., was founded in 1997 by management expert James P. Womack, Ph.D., as a nonprofit research, education, publishing, and conference company with a mission to advance lean thinking around the world. We teach courses, hold management seminars, write and publish books and workbooks, and organize public and private conferences. We use the surplus revenues from these activities to conduct research projects and support other lean initiatives such as the Lean Education Academic Network, the Lean Global Network and the Healthcare Value Network. Lean Enterprise Institute and the leaper image are registered trademarks of Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc. Learn more at https://www.lean.org.