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Can Great Lean Companies Develop Great Lean Managers?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I participated recently at a hiring process for a position at a lean company (a true leader in the lean field). They were about to fire a manager who had a bad attitude and was performing poorly. However, the company was handling this in what seemed like a fearful and excessively risk-averse method: they were interviewing candidates for his replacement off-site (to keep the person from finding out) and did everything to keep the person from knowing he was to be fired, since they feared that if he left early then their relationship with the customer would suffer. So how can a good lean company tackle this type of problem? Where is the honesty and transparency in the company to people? I know that not everyone can fulfill the lean ideal—but shouldn’t the system of managing folks who fall short be more consistent with lean principles?

Many thanks for this powerful comment. Ultimately lean does come down to people, and attitudes, and values, so your question raises hard questions that we should all discuss together as lean guys.

Your comment reminded me of the CEO who was dedicated to lean - to truly walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Accordingly he sought to establish a "value stream of people", a clear promotion path for middle managers based on their ability to learn, and to their commitment to lean in terms of both results and process. People would be promoted internally whenever a spot opened up.

Unfortunately the CEO had a senior manager who was simply not working out - who was not getting it, and, after many efforts, not even trying to. The guy had to go. But, working life being what it is, this branch manager was engaged in many delicate customer negotiations (in several cases dealing with problems of his own making). The CEO felt it would be better for the company to let him finish these open files.

Now, a spot had opened up in this senior manager's area. One of production managers started making noises about not being paid enough, and began a loud search for other jobs. This production manager was felt to be okay, but not outstanding, and certainly not site manager material yet. This would be a challenging problem for a senior manager committed to lean - let alone one who was not on board. Sure enough, during this period of working out the final problems, this director told the CEO that he had come up with a solution. His production manager didn't really want more money, he said, but more recognition and responsibilities. So he offered him the job of site manager without increasing his pay. The CEO was aghast at this solution: it promoted a guy who was not ready, and what about the message that it sent to all the other production managers? What a missed opportunity to promote the kind of site manager that showed the right promise! As you can imagine the situation went from bad to worse. In the end, keeping the director longer, even if some of the reasons were valid, created many more fires to put out.

I believe that there are three main dimensions to this issue. First, the fact that lean is an ideal, and that even when we’re totally committed to it, we often fall short, particularly in people discussions because there are so many aspects involved - many of them very emotional and unspoken. Second, it's very hard to understand the real causes of individuals falling short of lean ideals. Are they doing lean for real yet failing locally because the problems are more complex than our ability to solve them? Or are they people who say they are doing lean, but are just using the vocabulary without actually re-thinking or improving usual practices? Third, people who seek "lean" companies to join are often disappointed. It’s probably better to look for a job and a company you feel good about and bring the lean spirit with you.

Lean is an ideal. Toyota, at its best moments has demonstrated many aspects of what this ideal means in practice, but it is also a company like any other and Toyota employees and managers will be the first to agree to the fact that it often falls short, as Jim Womack, LEI founder, has recently pointed out in his e-letter. Indeed, one of the striking aspects of lean is that this True North ideal is very hard to reach. Let's start with a few basic components of the Lean Ideal:

  • Complete customer satisfaction by constantly improving mastery of technology and technical skills
  • Employee engagement by developing people and reinforcing teamwork
  • Constantly seeking new markets and new value creation for society overall

A defining feature of lean is that this "striving for better" is operational-ized in each department in very specific ways (such as zero defects, zero late deliveries, zero accidents, one by one production on demand in sequence, employee suggestions, etc.)

The first part of studying lean, therefore, is studying this ideal. How does Toyota do it? How should we do it? How does the system work as a system? How does the ideal translate to our local situation? We must always keep our wits about us and bear in mind that this is an ideal, and so reality will always fight back. This means that lean leaders must always be willing to be realistic when the company and its individuals fall short. It's always a difficult judgment to know whether (1) we're trying hard and failing (which is okay as this is what PDCA is all about) or (2) we're not trying hard enough and we're telling ourselves we're succeeding. I believe this distinction is very important to keep in mind, particularly if your job is connected with lean programs in any way. The danger otherwise is to be constantly frustrated by apparent lack of progress and the scope of the work to be done: the closer you get to the mountain, the larger it looks!

So the second aspect to work on is trying to figure out how committed people are to progressing towards the ideal. This is not always easy to evaluate. During our busy jobs it's very hard to determine exactly where people are coming from and at what speed they can progress. And in fact, the better that you come to know your people, the less likely you are to push them beyond their comfort zone, to refuse to accept their failures since you believe they are doing the best they can. This is one of the reasons a sensei is so essential to the lean journey. The senseis keep challenging us on how hard we're really trying.

The key question here is to evaluate whether any behavior which doesn't fit with the lean ideal is the reflection of a local situation we don't understand well enough, or whether this is the symptom of a lean principle thoroughly ignored. This is a key question because it arises so often, particularly during the Gemba visits.

The third aspect is whether, when we're personally committed to lean, we should seek "lean" companies to work for? In absolute terms, absolutely. But in practice, it's trickier. Because of the two previous points it's hard to know exactly what it means when a company is recognized for its leanness. There is a great account of the terrible disappointment of an American engineer who joined a Toyota supplier in Japan to learn the "lean" way to work first hand. He did find lean, but this was not at all what he had in mind, and not much to his liking. I recommend Notes from Toyota-Land: An American Engineer in Japan by Darius Mehri as an entertaining, enlightening and occasional painful read.

The best thing to do is to look for companies you like: companies that have products that interest you (hard to be engaged if not), with values that you respect and understand if not share wholesale (hard to be happy working there if not), and that offer you a decent position and wage (hard to be motivated if not). "Lean" is what you bring to the company. As the CEO says to his plant manager in The Lean Manager: "You are the help. You are the plant manager. You are all the help the plant needs. There is no cavalry to the rescue. We have no cavalry. The plant's got you—and that's it."

Lean spirit is an attitude and a practice. This is what we bring to the job. The company cannot provide this. It's easier to work with colleagues who share the same spirit, than not. Although, on the other hand, people who don’t have the lean spirit can most benefit from discovering it. Thank you again for your comment because part of what makes lean hard is the constant disappointment, the relentless feeling we should be doing more, and better. The upside, of course, is what we contribute when we bring a better understanding of processes and teamwork to an area that has none, and when we start engaging our teams in kaizen. True empowerment is teaching people to solve their own problems and make better decisions in their day to day job: that's the lean management promise.

To hear other points of view on lean implementation, join me on The Lean Edge.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Olivier Fichet January 21, 2010
"But in practice, it's trickier. Because of the two previous points it's hard to know exactly what it means when a company is recognized for its leanness."

LEAN has a lot of meaning nowadays, and that is at least one reason why a certain standard or label would be a good idea: help recognize a type of management, based on certain objective management evaluation criteria. After all, the "Best Employer of the Year" polls already exist.
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