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How is leadership engaged and trained in lean?

Michael Ballé
5/4/2015
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Dear Gemba Coach,

How is leadership engaged and trained in lean?

The question is: Engaged in what and trained to what? There are many kinds of “lean” around, but if I look at the most successful cases I know, leaders see lean as a system to learn to learn (as, indeed, John Shook explains in Managing To Learn is the key to Toyota’s enduring success).

Learn to learn – what do I mean by that? The leaders that adopt lean as a full management method recognize that business conditions change all the time and it’s hard to know how to find fit-to-environment to succeed. For instance, one company I know was under such price pressures and deteriorating working relationships from its main clients, who were large OEMs, that over just a few years, it developed a new range of smaller customers where it could build more collaborative and more profitable deals. Having stated his intent to do so, the leader of this company acknowledged that he didn’t know upfront what he had to change in his processes to be able to convince smaller business partners and find win-win space. For this CEO, lean was the method to first, find out what performance he needed to change, to adapt, then to work with his teams to learn how to do so rapidly.

From the leader’s point of view there are two distinct questions:

  1. What do we seek with lean? Lean leaders seek the key business challenges that, if resolved, will lead the company to a superior level of performance.
  2. How do we do lean? Lean is also a practice to engage shop floor teams to explore these challenges and find local solutions, which the leader can then think about in global terms at the business level.

Facing Problems

Lean principles engage the leader with the business by making them face the performance problems the organization doesn’t know or doesn’t want to face. On the gemba, the sensei points out:

  • Safety issues everyone feels that employees can live with: By looking at accidents, one uncovers safety problems no one feels are really being dealt with. Last week, I was in a plant where an operator fell walking across the yard in the rain – what can be done about that? Well, when you look at the yard, you see the surface hasn’t been fixed in years and is full of potholes.
  • Customer quality issues everyone feels are too rare or too expensive to fix: There are so many quality complaints the company shrugs off because it feels customers are not using the product or service the way it was supposed to or stipulated in the contract – customers knew what they were signing for. Sure, but that doesn’t stop them from complaining, which means that they are looking for an alternative.
  • Stagnation in the process everyone feels are unavoidable: Try changing internal delivery in a plant from pallets moved with forklifts to a 20-minute rhythm of pick-up by a tugger. This simple lean technique will immediately reveal how the business is set up for stock, not for delivery. Similarly, try halving all batches, you’ll find out the business is set up for low unit price, not overall cost.
  • Reacting closer to where the defect is produced: In most companies, defective parts are set aside, isolated, processes, Pareto-ed, the main ones are analyzed, and so on. Lean tells you to react closer and closer to every defective made, and so discover the true sources of productivity loss. This reveals how the organization is designed to process non-quality, not to reduce it.

Get workplace teams to analyze their own methods and come up with better ways of doing things: On the gemba, leaders immediately witness the fact that corporate-designed processes don’t necessarily apply to all the specifics of the local situation. Yet, freeing (and supporting) teams to take ownership of their own working method causes endless organizational issues, turf wars, defensive behaviors and so on. The lack of technical flexibility often reflects a lack of managerial flexibility.

The Jackpot

In applying lean principles on the gemba, leaders engage deeply with their own business by discovering issues they didn’t see beforehand. For instance, a problem seen as lack of reliability of forecast from sales now appears as a lack of flexibility of production, and a lack of leveling know-how in the planning.

The jackpot lies in using lean generic principles such as safety always, complete customer satisfaction, just-in-time, jidoka, standardized work and kaizen to reveal business-specific challenges, such as learning to produce parts right-first time after a tool change. We’re looking for high-leverage issues: narrow, difficult issues that, when cracked, will have a large impact on the business performance as a whole. The lean tradition can be a guide to help you look in the right place, but specific issues will remain company specific and require deep leadership engagement with the reality of what the company does to be surfaced.

The other specificity of lean is that these issues are revealed and continuously clarified by the very act of engaging with value-adding teams to solve performance problems. Kaizen has two outcomes: by solving a specific problem, people learn more about their own processes, which clarifies the deeper issue the business is facing and so on. This is why it’s so important that leaders engage deeply with the kaizen effort: only senior executives have the business perspective to see beyond the immediate kaizen effort and understand what it tells them in terms of strength and weaknesses of products, people and processes.

As a leader, this means learning to:

  1. Involve the line hierarchy in supporting kaizen, which means teaching middle-managers to understand the impact of kaizen and change their own management practices accordingly in order to integrate the learning from kaizen efforts in the way the business works.
  2. Involve functions so that silos learn to work together to improve cross-functional processes according to what emerges from kaizen initiatives and integrate the results of local improvement in the way the organization works as a whole.

Hand in Hand

The leader needs to both engage with her business as a whole through kaizen on the gemba, and then learn to get her organization to learn from kaizen results – not a small issue. Both are extremely hard to do on one’s own, and coaching from a sensei is often critical to learn to:

Focus on the customer: The pressure of operations tends to turn attention inwards, and all too often lean is discussed for lean’s sake and not for the business leverage points we are really seeking. This is like confusing the scaffolding and the building.

  • See what is there and see what is not there: Visualizing the ideal process as well as looking into the details of the existing one. Seeing what is really there is hard enough, but seeing what is not there needs long experience.
  • Get the knack of visual management to express the business challenges in practical form on the shop floor: Physical visual management, plan versus actual, problem solving, kaizen activities, etc. Lean has a long tradition of visual management and it’s silly to try to reinvent everything every time.
  • Use problems as an opportunity for education, not as a means to pressure teams into delivering more: Turning problems into teachable moments is a learned skill that is hard to learn on one’s own, particularly when one feels responsibility for outcomes as well.

 Engagement comes from discovering new areas for improvement what we can do for customers, and working together at establishing new work methods. Training is about learning by doing, under the guidance of a sensei, who points at interesting learning topics and gives the right development exercises – both go hand in hand.

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