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We found your visit rather challenging ... does “real” lean have to be such a struggle?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I’ve just finished your two novels after your visit to our plant. I have to say we found your visit rather challenging, which I can now put in better context after reading the books and look forward to your next one. The question I’m facing internally however is whether “real” lean needs to be that challenging or is there an easier way to do lean projects without questioning as much what has been done in the past?

The goal of continuous improvement is … continuous improvement, and that’s pretty much non-negotiable. I hear what you’re saying, though, and the “challengingness” is really an effect of the early visits – after a while people get used to it, and it can even become fun (unless we hit again deeper issues when it becomes challenging all over again). Why is a Gemba visit so challenging? Essentially, I think you’ve hit it square on the nail: the visit questions what has been done before and since people find it difficult to separate their work from their selves, they feel attacked when something they’ve done is questioned.

On the Gemba, I have to work very hard in the early days to get people to relax with the fact that no one is reducing people to one idea they’ve had. In fact, the main lean assumption is that people are doing their job well, but that they hold a few misconceptions that make them do silly things, and they need to realize this by themselves, hence the challenging questioning. The problem obviously is to find a balance between challenging enough so the person will question her thinking and not so much that you tick them off so much you lose the connection. As with most of human posturing this is a delicate strong/warm balance.

The Struggle Is …

Is there an easier way? I’m not sure – and that’s not for lack of searching. In the foreword to the next Gold Mine series book, Lead With Respect, Jim Womack writes “For readers encountering the Ballés (father Freddy and son Michael) for the first time, I welcome you to a world of struggle and great difficulties but, as always, with an eventual happy ending as the transformed Southcape not only survives but flourishes.” I feel that “struggle” is the perfect word.

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, the best business book I’ve read so far this year, CEO Ben Horowitz describes what he calls “The Struggle.” His point is that every entrepreneur starts a company with a clear vision for success but then things never go as planned: products have issues that are hard to fix, the market isn’t where you thought it was or has dramatically shifted, employees are losing confidence and either leaving or soldiering and, most dramatically, sales aren’t what they were supposed to be.

Suddenly, you’re running low on cash, your backers tell you it won’t be easy to raise more money and then… you lose a loyal customer (this is more or less where Phil Jenkinson starts his lean journey The Gold Mine). Horowitz tells us: “The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place. The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer. The Struggle is when your employees think you’re lying and you think they may be right. The Struggle is when food loses its taste.”

The Struggle might sound hyperbolic but one thing I’ve learned about working with CEOs over the years is that I’ll never want to be a CEO because they all of them go through The Struggle at some point – regardless of how well they’ve done the job. In many ways it’s precisely The Struggle that defines them as CEOs as it defined their company for the future. So, sure, you can ignore The Struggle, but then, as Deming once quipped, no one has to change, survival is optional.

Lean Lessons for CEOs

Lean is great because it teaches CEOs to face The Struggle by (1) being better ready for it by struggling a bit every day – a well trained army is much better prepared to face battle than a lazy one and (2) by teaching to face it with others and not on their own. Certainly the CEO needs to protect their employees from the stress of The Struggle, but by learning teamwork and kaizen, many aspects of the hyperbole go away. Horowitz breaks down the job of CEO in two terms:

  1. Knowing what to do (sometimes in situations of extreme uncertainty)
  2. Knowing how to get it done (leading other so the company performs even in tough times)

Lean has a very unique way of addressing these two points. First, by getting people to conduct kaizen on the Gemba every day the CEO builds a careful, progressive understanding of what the company’s real challenges really are, from customer response, to tech mastery to supply chain footprint and partnerships. Genchi genbutsu with the view to clarify challenges through exploratory kaizen is a very powerful way to discover what needs doing as opposed to expecting to wake up one morning with “the vision” for the company.

Secondly, precisely because of the involvement of all people all the time in practicing kaizen and drawing standards, performance is built in the lean method. Involving every employee in the dynamics of improvement is precisely what gives the company its performance. It is also a great generator of morale when done well, as employees develop greater confidence in (1) the competence of their executives, (2) their ability to do the day to day job and (3) their abilities to face new problems.

From that perspective, one key to understand the power of lean practice is that it turns The Struggle in caps into the struggle in lower case. Rather than fight alone with impossible situation, the CEO learns to be less of a providential leader and more of an adaptive one: working with others to adapt the company by continuous small steps every day rather than through large reorganizations, M&A, and all the usual tools of the CEO toolkit.

Executive’s Role

Yet, let’s face it, this only works if the spirit of the struggle remains – watered down certainly, piecemeal, absolutely. But constant nonetheless. A key TPS tenet is that no process is ever perfect so there is always room for kaizen. In practice, this means that as an executive it’s an important part of your lean role to point out:

  1. In what specific way the process is not perfect (point out the waste)
  2. Ask “why?” for deeper causes to avoid knee-jerk reactions
  3. It’s the responsibility of the people who run the process to improve it (with management support)

This, on the Gemba, remains a struggle no matter how long and how well we’ve done it. And by the way, if sometimes the struggle disappears, it’s a sure sign we’re no longer asking the right questions. So yes, the struggle is part of lean and the only thing to do is, as I was once told in the UK: relax and enjoy your problem(s).

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