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How Do We Help Our Plant Managers Want to Do Lean?

10/25/2010
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How Do We Help Our Plant Managers Want to Do Lean?

Dear Gemba Coach,

We've just changed our divisional general manager and the new boss wants our lean approach to be less directive and more participative. That is to say, our plant managers should want to do lean instead of feeling that they are being forced to. This is a big change from our previous boss. Any advice on how to handle this transition?

"The largest weakness of the Toyota Production System (TPS) is that it relies entirely on the plant managers," is the first thing my father Freddy was told by his Toyota sensei when he became CEO of an automotive supplier. A more positive (and less Toyota-like) way of saying this is that lean transformation relies on the plant managers, a fact that has been proved time and time again. So how do we motivate plant managers to carry on with lean activities and to develop their own brand of lean thinking?

My father's recipe was a blend of fear, support, and clear direction. In any case, that's what the plant managers remember more than a decade later. They were terrified by the budget sessions and the CEO Gemba walks: they felt their job was constantly at stake (which turned out not to be true: although several plant managers left pursuing other opportunities, he only actually fired one). They respected him because he never left them to face the music alone, and he spent hours discussing their problems and guiding them to solutions without narrowing their autonomy. But what they most remember as a golden age was the clear direction: they knew where they had to go, and even in the face of specific issues with customers, suppliers, or other problems, he never avoided addressing the long-term problem as well as getting an immediate reaction. In hindsight, this is where the cookie crumbled: the plant managers who believed in the long-term vision flourished (regardless of their implementation difficulties – they learned), and those who thought this was just automotive business as usual, trying to respond to every event tactically, ended up leaving the company.

Now that he's taken on the role of sensei, we have frequent discussions about how to get plant managers to practice lean. The fundamental problem he sees is that the essence of lean is creating problems for yourself, pushing yourself in a corner, and working at it until you find a way out. Very few plant managers are up to doing that on their own volition (usually very experienced guys with nothing to prove). The day-to-day reality of any plant manager is that problems keep raining down, and pressure from both the top (more results, more reporting, more everything) is only paralleled by the endless stream of things going wrong on the shop (quality issues, downtime issues, supplier issues, personnel issues, etc.). No plant manager needs any more problems to keep occupied! It takes a strong hand to get plant managers to accept focusing on yet more problems, and worse, not solving them by a quick workaround, but doing the work of discovering root cause and training their people to work it out. His position is that if you don't push very hard, the plant managers won't even pay attention.

True Lean or "Rain Dance"
On the other hand, he concedes that lean system implementation based on pure authority leads to a travesty of lean: the plant managers will implement the system to look good and avoid punishment, but have no incentive to actually solve the problems. How many pull implementations have we seen where shop stocks remain empty, red bins are overflowing, production analysis boards blank and so on? All the pieces of the system have been implemented forcefully, but none are used by the people to solve the underlying problems – they've just added one more layer to the plant's management system and shrug as they fill one further batch of "lean" paperwork. Without building relationships of constant support to get the plant managers to face their problems and solve them in a lean way, the lean activities will remain a ritual rain dance without any transformative power.

"Directive vs. Participative" is not a frame I'd apply to lean, as senseis and lean managers tend to be both directive ("you'd better tackle this problems and show me progress") and participative ("let's hear how you intend to do so – go ahead and let's see what happens") at the same time. But there definitely is a problem in terms of being pushy enough as a boss to get the plant managers to pay attention, considering all the other pressures they're under, as well as determined to develop their autonomy in both having initiative of seeking problems by themselves and figuring out their personal path to solve them. The way lean essentially works is:

Lean systems highlight problems
?
Plant managers solve the problems with their teams
?
Lean systems can be applied in greater detail
?
That will reveal problems previously unseen
?
That will have to be resolved, again and again

After a couple of years of this regimen the plant should look radically different: the lean systems are implemented widely and the tools are used in detail and performance has significantly improved because managers and operators have learned how to run processes more precisely. The main issue is that (1) applying a new aspect of the lean is work and requires willpower and brains, (2) solving the problems it surfaces is work and requires willpower and brains and (3) doing it all over again is yet more work and requires willpower and brains. It's a tough sell.

Checking Baggage
I'm assuming from your question you're a lean manager and have to come up with a proposal for the new divisional manager on how to roll out lean activities. I don't have any specific advice but maybe we can frame your problem a bit better. If we go by the previous chart, this is a lot like teaching math to kids in school: you've got to teach them the tool (how to solve a problem) and then get them to apply this tool to an increasingly difficult set of problems, so that you can move on to the next concept and tool and tackle more difficult problems until you're doing path integrals and solving quantum physics problems. However, we're not dealing with kids but adults, and we have to do this in an organizational culture setting, not at school. So, what do we know about adult learning and cultural learning?

The main difference between teaching adults and children is that adults come with their own baggage: the cup is already full, so adding more knowledge to it is not going to be easy. Because they know what they know, in training adults we need to pay attention to different things:

  1. Make it worth their while: Whatever we try to teach them has to be immediately relevant to their current issues — adults need to see a rapid and relevant benefit (because of all the competing demands on their time). In this sense, pointing a gun to the plant manager's head does focus the mind wonderfully, but you also have to choose areas where they can see progress and where they believe this will bring them a real and present benefit.
  2. Give them autonomy: Whether they're right or wrong, adults know what they know, and you can't change that anymore than they can ignore their experience. The learning mechanism has to offer initiative in what issues to tackle and leave open how they intend to do so. Of course, this doesn't make teaching easier because you're there to teach how to solve this problem this way, but that's where the sensei skills are essential.
  3. Make it practical: Grownups enjoy heated debates about theory and concepts, but are notoriously poor at translating any of this in practice. Any actual learning occurs on a very hands-on, practical level. As my father's sensei said, quoting Ohno, "Look with your feet, think with your hands." Workshops are the basic learning tool of lean because classroom teaching has very, very poor returns for adults.

Cultural Learning
Setting aside the directive/participative debate, how does your lean program check on these three dimensions and how can it be improved? If the program is too loose, nothing much is likely to happen because the plant managers have many better things to do with their time, but if the program is too based on applying corporate standards, learning will not occur either. No, at the risk of sounding like a parody of a Zen: neither too tight nor too loose.

Learning never occurs in a vacuum. Kids are taught math in the classroom, within the specific context of the school and in the wider culture of national education and we all know there are good schools and bad schools, and cultures where learning is more valued than others. Similarly, lean activities do not occur in a vacuum but in the context of a specific organizational culture. So, what do we know of cultural learning?

Unfortunately, not a lot – this is, oddly enough, a nascent field in anthropology and it's hard to find any authoritative voice on the topic, but certain key ideas seem to emerge. For the sake of argument, let's think through the three main aspects of cultural learning:

  1. Role models: A culture, as a whole, is greatly influenced by a few individuals, a few stars, which have a disproportionate of how everyone else behaves. Although no one voluntarily copies star behavior, this still defines the envelope of permissible or advisable behavior. Certainly, in organizations, the behavior of the CEO and senior executives has a disproportionate effect on the rest of the troops. This is why most experienced lean guys will insist on a CEO's personal involvement — without it, rank and file is unlikely to follow.
  2. Space to make mistakes: If the cost of mistakes is too high, experimentation stops. For instance, very tough bankruptcy laws in some European countries completely smother any entrepreneurial drive: the price of failure is just too high to pick yourself up and start over again. Learning occurs faster in cultures that are relatively tolerant of mistakes, where individuals can take risks in attempting to do things differently. This feature is also very strong in the lean movement as interesting failures are explicitly viewed with favor. "Stop the line" is a uniquely advanced form of hard-wiring the positive aspects of mistakes.
  3. System of symbolic meaning: At the culture level, people create, remember, and deal with ideas as well as practice. To a large extent, culture can be seen as the set of ideas a group of people transmit and evolve (many of these ideas are concerned with defining what is a problem and what is not – human driven climate change? – and what is an acceptable solution or what is not – carbon tax? Cap and trade?). A clear system of symbols is a strong vehicle for cultural learning, whether bible studies or Euclidean geometry. Lean is very well favored in this respect as the TPS provides a strong symbolic system (as does six sigma, for that matter).

Time for Reflection
As with individual learning, how does your lean approach rate on these three dimensions and what can you do to reinforce these aspects: how can you entice senior execs in greater personal involvement? How can you create space for (not too costly) mistakes by permitting (interesting) failures?

Change is never easy, and not easier for lean managers than for plant managers – why should it be? But any change is an opportunity for hansei. For what it's worth, my advice is to take the directive/participative question seriously and return to the roots of your lean initiative and why it got to be the way it is. Bottom-line is that if you can't find something the new general manager is comfortable with, lean work will stop, period. The challenge is not to dumb down what you were previously doing, but to take this opportunity to reflect deeply on your understanding of teaching lean to plant managers and to lay new plans to move forward.

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