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The Trouble with Lean Experts

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I run a Lean Promotion Office (LPO) and my team mostly conducts kaizen events across the company. We are usually seen as successful in getting results and are well supported by our senior management. One problem is that middle-managers often complain about how individual LPOs go about effecting change, coming in with preconceived solutions, not listening to the people on the ground and sometimes adversely affecting operations in ways that don’t show up in the indicators. We see the lean program as quite successful overall, and have difficulties reconciling this with what we see is a worsening reputation. Have you come across situations like that?

Thanks for this question, it’s a courageous one to ask – and yes, funnily, I do come across similar situations. In fact, in my experience, they’re quite frequent, even when, as seems to be your case, lean activities deliver hard results. This is difficult on both fronts: firstly because frontline employees develop a deep distrust of “kaizen” as the reputation spreads, which is in direct conflict with the aim of spreading the kaizen mind, and secondly because lean specialists become discouraged with their job. They feel they’re doing good work by improving processes and getting results, and take it quite hard not to be better received by the teams on the ground.

This is not an easy issue to tackle. Let’s explore it by its two main dimensions: the relationship and the result. First, let’s look at the relationship. I assume from what you say that your team has been working at lean for a while and is by now quite expert at improving productivity in cells. Expertise has many advantages, the largest one being the ability to correctly diagnose a situation quickly, and focus on the key leverage points that will lead to rapid improvement. The more expert the lean guys, the easier it is to obtain hard results from the improvement workshops.

Experts, however, also have well documented drawbacks. As individuals grow in expertise, they also acquire behavioral side-effects that can irritate or downright anger the people they work with. What do we know about the various ways in which experts fall short

Domain Dependence

The most commonly known (and empirically validated) fact about expertise is that it is very domain dependent. One is an expert in one’s domain, relatively narrowly, and not in any other domain. For instance a great lean guy on injection presses (SMED, TPM, press settings, etc.) actually won’t be very good at lean assembly work (ergonomics, single-piece-flow, handling variation, component conveyance, standardized work, etc.). Although lean specialists (particularly consultants) tend to argue that their lean skills are broad and easily apply to any situation, this is not the case – and insisting on the fact that lean applies anywhere and that if people question this it’s because they’re resistant to change just rubs the matter in. Frontline employees know for a fact that their process is different (it is) and don’t believe cookie cutter solutions will apply. A smart way of going about it is to get them to apply the lean principles and tools to their domain expertise and see what comes out of it. But being prescriptive outright, even when right, is sure to aggravate operators with good cause.  


Expert are also overconfident both in their ability to solve the problem and the effectiveness of their chosen solution (which can also be their pet solution – i.e., they don’t know anything else). This is not necessarily a bad thing as it brings confidence to the improvement team, but can rub people the wrong way when the experts will summarily dismiss other opinions or proposals. In the experts’ mind, they’re not being blinkered, they just evaluate low success probability to any other suggestion than their idea. Letting people try their own solutions before browbeating them into accepting the logic of your own, even if to conclude this wasn’t the right way to go about it lets them learn, and helps building better relationships.

Gloss Over

Because experts are better at interpreting situations and finding the right way of dealing with the problem, they also tend to gloss over details and aspects of the problem they consider irrelevant. These details and issues, however, might be very relevant to the people on the ground who – rightly or wrongly – might have made a big thing of these issues, and causally linked them to the problem. 

For instance, in lean work, most operators are persuaded that what the cell really needs is a new machine here or there. They will pay great attention to the various ways in which the machine misbehaves. In many cases, it is obvious to the expert that, yes, the machine might be a problem, but unbalanced processes and intermittent component supply have a much bigger impact on performance. The experts will then skate over all the anecdotal evidence the machine has had its day and is completely shot, and probably rightly as well. But it’s not because the machine is not the main problem of the line that it isn’t the team’s main problem. To get the operators to realize the problem is elsewhere, the expert should first get them to conduct an analysis showing whether this is the issue or not. As long as people are convinced they know what the real problem is and the expert is just skimping over it, they’ll feel not listened to and not very trustful of the expert’s recommendations. 


Oddly, experts tend to be quite inflexible in their own domain of expertise. If something changes, such a norm, a regulation or just knew knowledge, experts are often the last to accept the change and take it on board (unless they are true experts, realize this bias, and constantly self-monitor and challenge their own knowledge).

For instance, in one company’s expert team, the first understanding for eliminating waste was that one should study every operator work cycle distinguishing the “green” (value-added) activities from the “red” (nonvalue-added) activities. The aim of a kaizen workshop was to reduce the red, nonvalue added activities.

When the same team started to work under Toyota’s direct coaching, the sensei taught them that before going into this distinction, they should first measure the degree of variation between the minimum cycle of 20 and the maximum. The sensei redefined the kaizen work as reducing variation in the cycle before tackling the value-added non-value added distinction. For all sorts of reason this approach proved to be far more effective in terms both of parts per hours per person and operator involvement, but still, many of the “expert” members of the lean office refused to change their minds, and (no longer at the same company) some still conduct kaizen workshops with the red/green framework. The same group later learned from one of their Japanese counterparts that “preparation” for such a kaizen event wasn’t paper analysis but actually spending a few days in the cell with the operators fixing the most obvious ergonomic issues. As a group, they’re still struggling with acquiring this practice, although it makes obvious good sense. 

Another current example I come across regularly is getting lean guys to accept adding environment to quality, cost, delivery, safety, and moral indicators of customer satisfaction. The resistance to measuring the environmental impact of a kaizen workshop (less cardboard boxes, more reusable containers) is surprising.

Not Good at Predicting How Others Will Do

Experts are equally notoriously poor at predicting how well others will do with the same problem. In the lean context, this is an issue inasmuch as lean experts typically get it wrong when they tell a team that this issue will be easy to solve and this one won’t. The issue here is not the actual problem, but the team’s own understanding of the problem and the expert is a very poor judge of that because no one understands what others don’t understand.

Overall, experts are good at identifying the problem and solving it, but poor at sharing this understanding with others, which is a serious pitfall in lean where the number one aim is to teach people to solve their own problems. Not surprisingly, teams on the ground tend to complain about the lean experts – even if the expert turned out to be right. The first part of the answer to your question is for your expert team to work at being more self-aware and understand the state of the relationship with the shop-floor teams.

One quick exercise to visualize this is to map the emotional level of the team throughout the workshop. Vertically we can draw a happy face, a neutral face, and an angry or upset face, and track horizontally the workshop path, to see how the participants feel at different stages of the event. Sure, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, sacred cows make the best burgers, no pain no gain and all these aphorisms explain that people are not necessarily happy changing their mind – but is it really necessary. In some cases (and I have to confess, I tend to do this), you just ram the ideas through and don’t care how people feel about it, as a way to make them progress faster. But if that’s your strategy, don’t wonder or complain that they’re not happy about it.

To answer your question, the first aspect to investigate is whether your lean officers understand how much relationship building is part of lean. LEAN = KAIZEN + RESPECT. We walk on two feet: improving performance and developing mutual trust. If your lean team accepts that developing mutual trust with the frontline staff is a core part of its mission, maybe you can then assess and monitor attitudes and behaviors, taking into account what is known of “normal” expert biases.

The second thing to check is the actual performance of your expert team. Are you definite that people’s situation has improved after the kaizen? I can’t count the number of kaizen events I’ve come across where productivity has improved on paper, but the situation is clearly worse for the people in the cell. Many “improvements” have not been finalized and the outcome is increased variation in the cell. Furthermore, many attempts at transforming “nonvalue-added” work into “value-added” work lead to increasing the ergonomic burden on operators. 

Lean is unique in taking the point of view of value-adding staff and encouraging them to think for themselves. These background complaints about the lean team should be taken seriously and investigated to assess (1) the real impact of kaizen events on the people in the cell and (2) the relationship developed by the lean team with operators and frontline managers during the kaizen workshop

If there is one overall lesson to draw from years of experience in transformation is that change occurs within a relationship. You can’t expect any deep change to occur in anybody unless there is a pre-existing mutual trust relationship. Even if you carry a lot of weight in the company and are not afraid to use a large gun to force people into doing this or that, they’re unlikely to adhere if they’re being bullied into anything. So the real question for any lean team is how do we first develop a relationship before we ask people to change? As I mentioned earlier on, I’ve found that working on basic ergonomics is an excellent relationship builder. As a first step to kaizen activities, taking the time of fixing issues for the people you want to later convince of new ideas can create a few mutual wins as a foundation stone for a future win-win relationship. I don’t know whether this answers your question, but that would be the first thing I’d go and investigate: are all my lean promotion officers aware that change occurs within a positive relationship?

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Michael Thelen February 2, 2011
Great question and answer! 

In all, remember that the LPO, Sensei, Mentor, Leader, Expert, Consultant, (or whatever the person is titled!) must remain HUMBLE.  The key is Servant Leadership.  Ask the right questions to drive others to the right answer.  To twist an old saying, Give a man a fish, he'll be insulted or just demand more.  Teach him how to fish, and he'll improve beyond expectations.

We have to remember that everyone (including ourselves) needs to "learn to see".  Sometimes our own near-sightedness doesn't allow for us to see the broader implication.

To another of Michael's points, even today, I'm reading three more books on Lean - one published a few months ago, one in 1996 and one from the '80s.  You can never expand your knowledge enough.
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