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How Much Control Do I Need (and Need to Give Up) to Lead?

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Dear Gemba Coach:

I am interested in setting up a team for implementing lean. So far I have been trying to make changes on my own, but find that without support from others I have little time to implement new practices or conduct root-cause problem-solving. Doing so keeps me from running the daily operations of the fabrication and large machining departments. To be an effective lean leader, do I need to let go of the control of the daily operations and concentrate on being the lean manager?

A) I’ve heard many line managers ask me this question, and it's a scary one. In a sense, the answer is not one or the other. Being a lean manager does involve controlling daily operations—but doing so in a different way.

I've talked to several people who've had middle-management position in Toyota’s Kentucky plant during the period it started its operations. They had been hired with experience as operational managers. Toyota's aim was to teach them TPS as quickly as possible - to turn them into lean managers.

How did they go about it? Each operational manager was appointed a "coordinator." This person was usually an experienced manager from Japan with good understanding of TPS, and whose only job was to dream up exercises for them to do in addition to running the shop. As one of them explained, it took him a couple of years to understand that these exercises took priority over the "normal" job of controlling daily operations. When the coordinator suggested an exercise, it had to be done right then and there.

When kind of exercises? Essentially these would involve exposing a problem (where previously you thought none appeared), and then establishing a new performance goal. The coordinator would basically watch the manager try to reach this new goal without doing much more than asking difficult questions. They were never very interested in the actual implementations (or at least didn't appear to be). This has been my experience watching Toyota sensei work with their suppliers.

Now, what's going on here? Kaizen is about improvement, sure. More to the point, Kaizen is about sustainable improvement. Improving is easy – keeping the improvement is hard. Why? Because if all the reasons creating the situation remain, then give it a couple of weeks and the same causes having the same effect will undo everything you've done and force the situation back to what it was. If you work hard at it for a couple of days in a Kaizen blitz, you can turn a cell upside down, but if the same management policies remain unchanged, three weeks later, there’ll be very little left of the "improvements."

However, Kaizen can be seen in a different light: self-study. Improving something right away enables one to study the faults in the existing process. Better yet, it reveals how you manage and improve operations. Consider this exercise. At the start of the lean journey someone strives to get all the WIP stock out of the warehouse and in front of the cell or machine that produced them, reducing WIP stock by half. Obviously, it wouldn't work. They’d spill over all over the place. But every time that can happen one can see why for real and figure out what goes wrong in the process: are the batches too long? Is the flow too complex? Is production planning ignoring takt time? Is conveyance moving heaps of stuff at the time? By forcing a cell to perform better, we can see all the reasons the existing system doesn’t allow it to do so: we learn to see that the root cause of most of our problems are our own policies. Painful, but salutary.

Another good exercise for self-study is standing in a cell and actually stopping the cell at every defect, asking operators to identify the cause of the defect, writing each response on a whiteboard (you don't try to solve everything right away, just get a feeling for what goes wrong), and then tackling the most frequent cause and reducing defectives. By doing this, as opposed to waiting for the quality reports and analyses, one discovers many "real" causes to quality issues that are a reflection of training, purchasing or manufacturing design policies.

Just recently I was walking the Gemba with the operations director of a mid-sized firm. We were walking around a logistics area and saw that many forklifts were standing idle. So we taped a yellow area around a forklift that was sitting still on one side of the logistics hall with a handwritten sheet of paper saying that the plant manager had the keys. It took a while for the logistics operators to actually come looking for the keys, and when they did it was because two other forklifts had maintenance problems – which started another interesting investigation.

So, any Kaizen should deliver two types or results. One, actual performance improvement, which is the only proof that we've actually understood the problem well enough to solve it. Two, knowledge about how the "normal" process of operations creates the current situation - and thus what needs to be changed at management policy or practice level so that this situation disappears.

The only person who can do that is the actual operational manager of the zone. A staff lean "expert" can improve locally by implementing tools and show the way, but will not have the in-depth knowledge and experience with the existing process to figure out why the current process does what it does.

So becoming a lean manager starts with keeping direct control of operations and committing to a rhythm of Kaizen (much like sports training) to understand what the current process and practices do wrong and fix it as you go. This, of course, is much easier with an experienced sensei to point the way and ask the hard questions. The sensei is also essential to put the learning from the experiments into practice so that you draw the right conclusions. Experience shows that without someone to remind people of "true north" they tend to get stuck in weird and wonderful – and not lean – solutions.

How do you know you’ve got there? Well, when you can actually let the process run itself (with a pull system and jidoka for instance) and find that most of the day’s work is fixing gaps between the standard ways of working and ideal conditions, and finding new ways to improve.

This is a very deep question because it reflects how we tend to separate running things from improving them. The key to lean management is that running things means improving them. This cannot be done from a staff position. Transformation starts when the line manager uses Kaizen projects to understand what is wrong with his or her processes and moves on, step by step to fix it. New problems then appear, and it’s one more run through the PDCA. What the Toyota veterans tell us is that you do this for a couple of years and then, one day, you find out that getting others to do PDCA has become your main way of managing them. You have then become a full time lean manager – even if not exactly what you had in mind when you started the journey.

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