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Do Managers "Get" Lean?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

You mentioned during the webinar that plant tours reveal how well managers 'get' lean. Can you be more specific?

Certainly. One of the key purposes of practicing "go and see" is to examine the current state of Gemba leadership. After every workplace visit I will ask senior managers how well they believe the site manager understands lean. What do they "get"? What don't they? How can we help them? So during the workplace visit, we look at three things:

  1. How lean are their processes (how much muri, mura and muda are visible)?
  2. How far are they along in terms of visual management and kaizen efforts?
  3. How do their actions reflect their understanding of the lean principles?

The best measure of their lean understanding can be seen in the physical aspects of their operations - regardless of whether they use the tools or not, or even whether they display a keen intellectual grasp of the system. For some lucky few, this lean stuff is just common sense. Like great athletes they can just do it without necessarily being able to explain why they are performing so well. A second measure is how hard they work at lean. Implementing (and maintaining) good visual management requires work, and so does keeping up with a steady stream of kaizen activities. Thirdly, do they do it right? Can you see a clear link between the amount of activity and improvements in processes and performance?

Now, over the years I've learned that the most important aspect for managers to understanding is . . . people involvement. Succeeding at lean involves two fundamental, interrelated areas: continuous improvement and people involvement. Without continuous improvement, people check their brain outside the workplace and dumbly follow processes someone else has thought up. Without people involvement, none of the improvement possibilities demonstrated by the lean approach can hold over time. Lean processes won't stay lean if all people at work are not deeply engaged in constant improvement. In places that haven’t been leaned out yet, it’s easy to improve productivity and reduce costs quickly. But working with leaner processes demands more thoughtfulness from the people who run them. So if one progresses on improvement without involvement, just like skipping on one leg, sooner or later you fall flat on your face. Conversely, involving people without giving them a way to express their engagement will raise expectations without actually improving experience, and disappoint all in the end. These two aspects of lean are inseparable. You can do one without the other, but not for long, and not without painting yourself into a corner.

Most plant managers who do lean understand the value of seeking improvement as a way of fighting the natural entropy of operations and the unavoidable decay of any equipment. Managers may be disappointed by kaizen that doesn't immediately generate large gains, but, as they practice, they recognize that small streams make large rivers, and that a constant flow of small step improvement is necessary to avoid falling back to old ways. What they don't get, however, is involvement. What makes me say that? Let's look at a few typical shop floor cases.

kaizen events: an obvious stepping stone into lean is organizing frequent kaizen events. The first sign that the plant manager is committed to lean is that he or she takes the time to come to the final presentation where the group explains the improvements made. There's usually a discussion about the improvements themselves, and how significant they are (can they be costed right) and so on. But some questions are glaringly missing from the discussion.

  1. First is muri (unreasonableness): are operators happier working in the cell after than before the kaizen? Have ergonomics or simple annoyance been improved? Have we asked the people themselves? Usually the kaizen group is comprised mostly of technicians with a few token operators who can discuss the why and wherewithal of improvement actions. So no one talks to the team actually performing the work. It’s very rare to find a plant manager who goes straight to the working team and asks: is the work easier to do now than before? Which of your suggestions have been implemented?
  2. Second, mura (stop-and-go): kaizen groups mostly focus on eliminating muda, which is great. But after the event, go watch the cell for half an hour and count the number of times that operators are interrupted in their normal cycle. Changes are made to make people more productive, but this is offset by the fact that they are still pulled out of their cycle every three parts. This is like having to write a difficult report under deadline pressure, and the phone doesn’t stop ringing. After making the work environment safer, we need to focus on making it more pleasant by taking away interruptions.
  3. Thirdly, muda (waste) elimination: sure, at the end of the event, many things have been changed that should make the work more effective. But have we done what is needed to make it stay this way? Have we established the management system to let people prevent things from slipping back? Have we taken the time to let them understand the changes made? The acid test of any kaizen event is returning to the process two months later. This is hard to take, but too often, absolutely nothing is left. Why? The people and their management haven’t been involved in figuring out what is necessary to keep a higher level of efficiency over time.

Stable teams: after creating cells that deliver a set value stream (a fixed basket of products), you must staff them with stable teams: the same operators working together in the same cell everyday. The benefits in terms of productivity are clear. When we measure a stable team against an unstable one (because of frequent temps, for instance) we typically find a 15% productivity difference. So why can't managers achieve this? Because it's hard. Customer demand is often hard to level, for one, so management reserves the right to move any worker anywhere in the plant in the morning according to immediate needs. Once, while looking at the pph numbers with a plant manager, we noticed that one of his three shifts had significantly higher output. The team leader had a ready explanation for this: she refused to take new operators in her team. Interesting, instead of drawing the right conclusion about teamwork and stability (as in 18% higher productivity), the plant manager later complained to us that that woman was totally inflexible and a real pain. This was not a bad plant manager. Indeed, he'd done some spectacular kaizen workshops and was implementing pull. But he simply did not "get" the people part: people involvement delivers productivity and quality.

Operator training: we all agree that frontline operators actually make the product or deliver the service, so they add the most value. Yet how much operator training do we actually carry out? I frequently ask operators: when were you trained at this station last? Too often, the answer is: "when I joined." Most managers see training as an obligatory cost without any real return. Bt contrast, many Toyota tools are easy to misinterpret if you don't see them for what they are: training tools. I have to confess that for many years I saw andon (pulling the chord to light a board which calls the team leader) as a tool to increase management productivity. I was in a Toyota plant once, and told my tour guide so. He looked at me, puzzled, and said "no: operator training." I didn't get it, so I repeated: management reactivity. "No," he insisted. "Operator training." So in the end, I had to ask about operator training. What he explained is that Toyota works hard at persuading all team members to pull the chord whenever they have a doubt. The team leader then comes and discusses their interpretation of the standard both in terms of quality (is the part good or not) and of standardized work (are they following the correct work sequence or not). So every andon pull is a training opportunity. If the team leader doesn’t pull the chord again in the space of a couple of minutes, the line then stops and this becomes a tool for management reactivity. But stopping the line is not that frequent, whereas andon pulls happen every minute or so. Involvement again: in this case I didn’t get it!

Quality circles: these days, every one laughs at quality circles. "Oh yeah, that thing from Japan we tried twenty years ago? Never worked." The only people I know who don't find quality circles funny are Toyota mid-level managers. Quality circles are a large reason why they have so much work. Quality circles start with a stable team investing about two hours overtime a week from some (or all) members studying detailed issues in their area. Why do they do this? Surely not for the great cost benefits. They do this for the involvement. Why don’t we see working quality circles in most places outside Toyota? Because managers don't get people involvement and aren't ready to pay for it.

What, then, is the ROI in involvement? Frontline workers make hundreds of products all day long. To make these products well they've got to follow a repetitive routine and stay focused on doing the work right all day long. This is difficult when they are constantly interrupted, or when they are doing a mechanical task all day long with little emotional commitment. Involving people through kaizen has two huge benefits. First, it helps people pay attention to their work. And second, it engages them to work more smoothly, with less burden and fewer interruptions. Finally, they are encouraged to look for anomalies and spot problems before they become full blown fires.

Most managers who commit to lean eventually do 'get it.' Unfortunately, managers often realize the "continuous improvement" aspect of lean but not the "respect for people" dimension. And so they hobble down the street on one foot, occasionally falling flat on their faces. Lean tools cannot be fully understand without considering both aspects. Hourly parts boards are "production analysis boards" which guarantee hourly production and generate operators comments about what went wrong. Kanban cards insure that the right products arrive at the right place in the right quantity, and give operators a clear waiting queue of products to make so that they can work smoothly and see what's ahead. Standardized work is about getting operators to adhere to a set sequence of steps in a set time, and about hearing all their difficulties on the workstation and spurring suggestions for improvement or "positive variance" (the one way to make the part better than the standard). Without seeing the twin aspects of key lean tools, people can easily get them badly wrong, and then wonder what went awry with their lean implementation. So be careful to look, and to see, these types of signs at the Gemba.

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