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Who To Move?

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Dear Gemba Coach:

"Kaizen Express" landed on my doormat this morning. While reading through I noticed that it states that if you get an operator saving through a Kaizen you move the best, most experienced operator out of the team.

Has anyone had any success with this?

I know that I was never able to convince management of this. My supervisors always told me to move the worst individual out. If you follow it through to its recommended solution and use the freed-up operators to form Kaizen teams then you just end up with a mish mash of all the people nobody wants. Who should I move?

Interesting question. The fact that it’s so hard to do probably says more about us than about the lean principle. Trying to follow this ideal in practice often results in something tough and messy.

In most Kaizen efforts I've seen in manufacturing cells (three or more persons working on one components), every workshop tends to increase productivity between twenty to thirty percent. Since we're following takt time, and we're not going to make more parts unless we need them, we need to remove operators from the process. Which gets really messy in practice.

How about rephrasing the question - not so much on WHO you move in the team, but WHERE you move them. This is not about lean per se, but the management of lean (or, lean management). Part of the principle of "making people before making parts" is having a clear vision for each person of:

  • where would you want to move them next as they develop
  • who should take their place
  • what to do if the next person doesn’t work out (unfortunately, does happen)
  • In essence, just as we've learned to have a plan for every part, we need a plan for every person.

Our options for moving an operator are the following:

  • out of the business
  • to another cell
  • up the food chain
  • to a technical role

The path of least resistance is number one: simply fire the "worst" operator - a system like Jack Welch's GE practice of culling the bottom ten percent every year. All, right, I hear you, not very lean, for two reasons. First, firing people because they're perceived to be poor performers damages mutual trust, and one of the aspects of "respect" in the lean sense is that the manager is held responsible for their staff reaching their objectives. If you consider your staff not good enough, in the lean sense, you’re telling yourself you’re not good enough as a teacher. In real life, sure, some people have to go, particularly when they've got the wrong attitude. But 10% every year? That's clearly silly. If you keep purging, well, it becomes hard to have any kind of relationship with employees. From the employees’ perspective, if it’s their buddy today, why not them tomorrow?

Choosing from the other options depends on the stage of your own lean initiative. One usually gets these kinds of questions when management realizes that having better shopfloor leadership matters, which means that investing in one team leader for every five to seven operators makes sense. At this stage, which is also when the situation occurs most because there are lots of Kaizen going on, you often find many open team leader slots to fill. The trick is not to staff them by hiring new people, but by liberating operators for Kaizen. Obviously you want to pick the best, which I define as someone who shows up on time every morning, is well respected by the other team members, and has demonstrated problem solving skills.

If all team leader spots are staffed, you might want to help a team that is struggling at another cell. A key idea of lean programming is that as volume for old products goes down, volume for new products will go up. New product cells definitely need the best operators, so liberating good operators from old product cells to get them to work on ramp-up products makes a lot of sense.

Worst case, no such thing is happening and all the products and cell are stable. This is a case of spotting the cells which are struggling because, indeed, one member of the team hasn't got the right attitude. This is trickier, but it’s possible to replace the worst operator with the best you've liberated from the Kaizen of an operator who doesn't cut it, and replace this operator with the best person liberated from Kaizen – so here, you’re taking someone out of the business but not the person liberated by the Kaizen. Many businesses run with twenty to thirty percent temporary workers (who can be very good), and who are easier to take out of the business.

Finally, as you mature, you may want to reinforce technical functions, such as maintenance. Here again, people with the right attitude and experience on the line are priceless. So, as you make these decisions be careful to consider how individual operators may want to evolve. Encourage them to make their own job in the cell disappear so they can move on to something else. Prove by your actions that they will be able to move on to something else.

So, there are many options, and the best response really depends on where the business needs someone, and whether it makes sense to take the best.

Now for the bad news. Removing the best person from a team requires management grit and HR support. Line managers leading individuals who wonder about their own future will need the support of HR and of their direct bosses. Unfortunately, while HR departments tend to be very enthusiastic at the outset of a lean program, dealing with the challenges of moving people around can be quite another story!

Having said that, the cost of not being sensible about this can be high. If operators feel that they're being decimated (in the classic Roman tradition of punishing a bad legion by randomly executing one in ten), if they believe that Kaizen creates layoffs, then getting operator involvement will be problematic. No one sees themselves as the worst or the best. Good operators may fear they’re the worst and poor operators may feel they're very good, and in any case, no operator will trust management to sort this out. So, in order to keep the Kaizen drive alive, it's really, really, really important that operators see being taken out of the team as a move upwards or forwards, not a punishment.

So as you make your moves, here's the key idea to keep in mind: manage people so that they have aspirations beyond their place in the line and want to move upwards to team leader or staffwise to a technical position. In this case, their involvement in the Kaizen process can be seen as a practical test/proof of their readiness to move on.

7 Comments | Post a Comment
Anonymous August 20, 2009
very good summation
dave August 21, 2009
Interesting to touch on the human resources and management side of lean. It is very difficult to get management to buy into this thinking, and stop thinking of the operators as warm bodies or worker bees.
Good follow up with the Red Book, by the way!
Zadig August 21, 2009
I would agree with the removal of the best as a viable reward to the team, but with a cautionary comment. Dont move them too fast, let the team get settled with the new cell configuration. Think about moving your best person into a rover role until the team realizes that they can be productive without their "star". And by all means, be open about your planning for personnel movement. Blindsiding the team can be devastatingly demoralizing.
Anonymous August 21, 2009
My eperience may well be an anomoly, but shouldn't be. We engaged in full-up well planned cell size kaizen events in a small manufacturing operation starting with the Maintenance Dept. Then transitioned thru the value stream from the shipping dock back to raw material receiving. Along the way "excess" headcount was created. After much arm twisting I convinced the owner to invest in "overhead" (as he saw it) and allow us to create a Production Support team that would do just that. Staffing came via the kaizen activities and I made a point to pluck some of the best for that purpose. They flourished and the overall kaizen activity at the molecular level flourished with it. The question of what to do with these folks never materialized as the list of initiatives grew exponentially. The cross polination has raised kaizen thought and practice to a level well beyond any initial hope I had when starting this activity. It can be done but for many managers it is a daunting paradigm shift. shift
Mike T. September 8, 2009
Great comments, all. You may often find this transition far more difficult when you are a single facility within a larger corporate atmosphere. The flexibility of small business is sometimes forgotten, where one can convince the "boss" or owner to keep people on staff for the right reasons.

Has anyone dealt effectively with a large corporation that is still driven by Finance, rather than Manufacturing (a GM-style organization, perhaps)? In these environments, it is virtually (although not totally) impossible to convince the C-level suits that keeping 'overhead' or 'indirect' labor can be value-added to the overall business. Unfortunately, this is often due to the single-metric focus they impart - reducing heads as the only way to reduce costs. Many cannot visualize how keeping heads can actually reduce product costs.

We in the Lean community, whether consultants, practitioners, or simply learners need to do a better job of showing this improvement.
Lando September 30, 2009
The main point of Kaizen is when everybody including the operators who work directly with the products in the production line can improve and solve problems themselves everyday.
I can give an example of what a big company is doing in one of the plants: after a kaizen activity in 2 production lines, they reduced from 6 to 4 operators in the first line and from 4 to 3 in the second production line. So they have now 3 free operators. Obviously, they moved the best 3 operators from both lines, but their objective was to train them in Kaizen and problem solving activities at the shopfloor and improve the both lines with their knowledge of the process.
After few months, the 3 trained operators started to work normally in their previous production lines again. But this time, the manager moved other 3 operators from the lines to train them in Kaizen and problem solving (like the other previous operators). They are in the 3rd month now and 60% of the operators are trained. Of course, the trained operators suggest improvements and participate actively in the problem solving meetings before the shift and the effectiveness of their countermeasure are very good, because they really know their process by heart (after years of experience working there)
At the end, when they have 100% of operators from this lines well trained in Kaizen and problem solving, it is planned to move again 3 best operators and they are going to lead the Kaizen Team activities, elaborate, adjust standardized work documents, support the manager in other improvement activities, and also start to train other operators of other production lines, etc.
It seems a good approach too and it is something that could sustain.
Anonymous October 2, 2009
I am interested in revieweng or hearing any comments as to how lean can be effectively applied in the office environment for example Human Resources. An enormous amount of research and work has been completed in the manufacturing/production area, it appears little examples are given on the more administrative side. Any literature out there I could avail of? Any help would be appreciated!
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