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How Do I Lead An Existing Lean Initiative as a Newcomer?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

The head of the lean initiative in our company has left and they gave me the job. I’ve been asked to review our current approach and propose a way forward. I’m a Gemba gal and not sure about how to go about it. Would you have any suggestions?

 Well, the Gemba certainly is a good place to start. Here’s how I would go about it. First, clarify the problem. It’s important to recognize the purpose of any lean effort from a Gemba perspective. That’s because lean initiatives can range from shop floor activities (usually workshops) to suggestion programs, standardized work training, quality circles, or any other way to organize kaizen for frontline workers. So start by asking the following three questions:

  1. How do the outcomes of these activities relate to the firm’s bottom-line?
  2. How do we sustain the results of these activities?
  3. How do we progressively increase employee’s commitment to these activities?

I’ve found that any kaizen workshop on the Gemba that can’t figure out clear answers to these three questions is in deep trouble. Without a clear sense of purpose, it’s inevitable that management will tire of the program and want to move to the next best thing (de-motivating all the people who have committed to it, and giving reason to the cynics), or that the employees will soldier on or resist the kaizen activities because they feel there’s nothing in it for them. This risks turning the entire initiative into a bureaucratic rain dance of counting how many workshops and training are done without any real impact on the business – a story that rarely ends well.

The Business of Lean

The two pillars of lean management are: first, continuous improvement, which is challenge, go and see and kaizen. And second, respect for people: teamwork and respect. Can we e this framework to shed some light on our problem?

What is the challenge of the program? In practical terms, what are the key results we need to achieve? I find it strange that many lean efforts are unclear on this front, which makes it difficult to say whether they are successful or not. As long as we’re not able to express clearly what we’re trying to achieve in terms of significant improvement of a few KPIs, we can never be sure of what we’re trying to achieve. Here are some specific examples of explicit challenges that work:

  • Halving work accidents every year until we reach zero
  • Halving customer complaints every year
  • Reducing inventory by 20% every year
  • Improving productivity by 15% every year

And so on. These would be typical lean challenges, you can tailor yours to your company’s issues. For instance, absenteeism can be a huge issue, or capex. The key here is to relate the lean initiative to the business model and figure out how lean practice can help the business to flourish.

Gemba Savvy

After becoming clear on the results part of the challenge, we can now apply lean thinking to the learning challenge. Say that you want to cut down your customer complaints by half (if you already knew how to do it, you’d have done it a long time ago).

Customer complaints occur as an outcome of certain things we don’t know how to do well, such as stop defective products at final inspection, or control the assembly process and so on. In order to deliver on this result, we need to have a good idea of exactly what it is we need to learn. This is where being Gemba savvy helps considerably. In many cases, such as customer complaints, seeing what the company needs to learn is already a challenge. In this case, the lean tools are a great way to “clean the window” and figure out exactly where we’re going wrong. This is not an intellectual exercise. There’s a lot of kaizen and Gemba work to do to get it right and be definite that if the company learns to do X better, then we’ll get the order of magnitude of expected results. If we’re not constantly worrying about whether we’re working on the right problem or not, we can expend a lot of shop floor efforts and have little to show for it.

Having figured out what the results challenge is and how this translates into what specific things the firm has to learn in order to get these results, we must now map out how we’re going to train all employees to do this.

The answer, typically, is standard kaizen workshops. For instance, say we have a productivity problem in assembly operations, which is the closest case to the birth of lean in automotive assembly, then we have a standard flow and layout workshop which has been perfected over decades: 7 wastes, clocking of operator cycles, identification of variation and calculation of takt time, work content and true potential, brainstorm to eliminate causes of variation and balance the line, follow up implementation and so on.

This standard kaizen workshop has spectacular results when done well and so-so results when done poorly. Above all it must show frontline staff how to achieve greater productivity (although, if management is not involved, the good ideas put forward can remain wishful thinking, particularly in the area of cell logistics). The key here is to turn the overall learning challenge into a kaizen learning by doing challenge.

Go and See

Finally, once you’re clear on your results challenge, the corresponding learning challenge, and how to get every employee to learn through standardized kaizen activities, all that remains is to make sure you have a robust checking mechanism to make sure that you’re getting the expected results because (1) you were right abut the learning challenge (2) the kaizen are delivering these results and (3) at a sufficient pace to train enough employees quickly enough to deliver the needed orders of magnitudes in results.

‘Go and see’ is an essential part of the clarification process. By constantly verifying whether the outcomes of our efforts deliver the qualitative and quantitative results we expect, we also refine our results to learning lever points to kaizen vision, which makes it more effective.

To answer your specific question, the first thing I‘d do would be to use your Gemba experience to clarify:

  • What results are expected from the lean initiative and how do they contribute to the business model (and bottom line)?
  • What learning “lever points” do you need to focus on in order to deliver those results?
  • Are the kaizen activities aimed at training all employees to improve on these lever points?

Being clear on this logic chain is essential to both the effectiveness of the program and its sustainability.

Pillowcase Syndrome

However, lean management also highlights a second pillar: “respect-for-people,” or in more mundane terms, people involvement. There are two issues here that are fundamental to any lean effort. First, a company is an integrated value chain so, in many cases, working on just one link only shifts the problem further on. For instance, trying to stabilize production without focusing on planning and logistics isn’t likely to get you anywhere quick. A common ailment of lean programs is the pillowcase syndrome: you squeeze one end, and it bulges on the other. For instance, having a forceful program to pull people out of the process through flow-and-layout workshops without the equivalent HR program to figure out how to take the equivalent number of people out of the business WITHOUT punishing the people who have been involved in the kaizen (usually reducing reliance on temp workers) is asking for trouble.

Let’s ask ourselves the three main questions again. In order to get the expected results:

  1. Which main functions have to learn to work together?
  2. What learning platform will we create to make them do so?
  3. How do we kaizen this so that they actually learn?

A good example is the weekly production plan. This is where I tend to start in most cases, by creating a weekly meeting where planning, logistics, production, procurement, and HR come together to solve a specific problem: a leveled production plan for the week that will then be signed off in blood. This means that they have to collectively solve two problems:

  • How to fulfill customer demand with the leveled plan
  • Identify the risks to holding the plan (machine breakdown, for instance) and determining an alternative plan beforehand so that we can still stick to the plan (Subcontracting the parts produced on the machine that is down? Quicker maintenance?)

As the team meets and learns to work out these issues (and as a consequence their internal issues), I ask the planner in charge of the meeting to keep and update an A4 sheet of planning “rules” which need to be constantly kaizened.

Many other such teamwork “platforms” can be created throughout the company. One other instance is a “slow build” workshop: when a design comes out of engineering and all the prototype parts have been sourced, production operators can be asked to assemble the final product in the presence of engineering, manufacturing engineering, quality, production, purchasing and so on, to finalize the new product and put together a proper manufacturing plan. The goal here is zero engineering changes after launch and there are, as you can imagine, many opportunities for product kaizen.

Last but not least, employee involvement. If your program is not purposefully designed to produce increased mutual trust, it is not likely to succeed in the mid term (beyond the early infusion of energy and low-hanging fruits). On this front as well we can ask ourselves the same questions

  1. Which people should we address in order to get the results we need?
  2. Are we clear on what “wins” they each will get out of the kaizen activities?
  3. Is every activity reinforcing mutual trust, or creating disappointed expectations?

Who Wins?

Let’s take again the flow-and-layout example. In the ideal case, the kaizen workshop will deliver (not necessarily in this order) (1) a productivity gain for the company which feeds into the cumulated “heads” win to create the aggregate productivity improvement target, (2) a work win for the operators on the line who now should have easier working conditions and participated at fixing their line in the way they wanted it and (3) a personal win for the person on the line that is pulled out because this will be a career move upwards: team leader on another line, a technical job, something they wanted and they worked for by involving themselves in improving the line they’re now leaving.

Without a clear idea of “who wins what” in the lean initiative, the program can easily flounder in the swamp of poor industrial relations. For instance, usually the kaizen workshop is only the first step of improving the situation. More often than not, the kaizen workshop highlights many issues that need to be resolved. Without an attitude of “problems first” and without thanking operators for pointing out problems and working hard to resolve them, much of the gains surfaced during the workshop won’t materialize. We will have destroyed trust rather than created some (typical management, they ask us for our opinion and then ignore it), and we’ll have further embattled our middle-management in their “nothing can be done or ever changes in this company so keep your head down” attitudes.

I don’t know whether that’s any help, but I do believe that the Gemba perspective is a key to having an opinion on the full program. At the Gemba, we can start figuring out:

  1. How clear we are on the “results to learning leverage points to kaizen” chain;
  2. Whether this mental chain is clear on operations, and on teamwork and developing mutual trust as well.

Verifying and refining this chain of thoughts is an essential activity on the Gemba: are things working out the way we’ve planned them? Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing enough of it? Which is a key ingredient to success with your lean initiative.

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