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How can I tell if people “get” lean thinking; what signs should I look for?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I’ve been training teams to do lean, intensively at first, and with paced-out coaching later. How do I know if they “get it”? What should I be looking for in behavior change? At what point should they be autonomous?

This is a very interesting question because people rarely “get” things at the same time, nor in the same order. Also, we’re often over-impressed by what they say, and find it harder to see what they actually do. Many of the best lean managers I know are quiet types, neither outspoken nor particularly clear in their positions, yet they’ve achieved spectacular transformations. So what are we looking for?

The first sign that minds are changing is when a team – under the leadership of the team leader or manager, – takes responsibility for one aspect of its performance. Ideally this would be customer satisfaction, but that one is often hard to grasp at first as teams tend to be separated from real customers by layers of management and organization. Lead time is a safer bet.

When a team commits to deliver on time every time and starts tracking it, chances are they’ve started to take responsibility for outcomes and not just work – for running the system and not being run by it. In industry this is about controlling trucks. In service, this is about planning exact delivery time. You will see it when they create a visual way to track this and discuss performance daily.

2 More Signs

The second sign is going to the gemba to see what happened. At first, people tend to discuss issues around the board in the meeting room until, sometimes, the light goes on and they go and see what happened at the place of the problem, to discuss specifics with the person who encountered the difficulty. This is an important moment because, typically, this is also when they progressively switch from “who?” to “why?

At the gemba it’s fairly obvious that problems are rarely the case of one person not doing their job. What we discover is that the problem is caused by a combination of Manpower (not enough training), Material (missing components or information), Machine (equipment not up to standards) or Method (no one’s ever looked at in detail how this work should be done). If the team is serious about its gemba investigation, they’ll discover that everyone present is party to the problem in some way, and will switch from managerial, cultural or attitudinal explanations back to technical debates – a huge step forward.

A third sign is when the manager understands the impact of daily “friction” on performance. As problems are examined one-by-one on the gemba, the manager and the team will progressively realize the huge impact of rework and how not-right-first-time at any station creates not only productivity loss but also frustration.

When they get there, they tend to invest more on their visual management. (Real visual management means distinguishing at one glance whether the situation is normal or abnormal, not PowerPoint graphics on walls.) They also start doing all the little things needed to get everything to work right the first time. The challenge is huge because in most companies I know there are budgets for investments and large costs, but running costs are always squeezed. Managers prefer to buy a new machine for hundreds of thousands of $$ rather than buy a can of paint for a clean-up. When you’ll see that their operations look better, you’ll know that they have started to “clean the window” in lean parlance and take better care of their workplace. This seemingly simple step is far from obvious, and a key sign of progress.

Signs from the CEO

The odds are that you’ve been teaching them kaizen methods. How do we know they get it? A clear sign is when a team leader spontaneously proposes the next kaizen topic when one has been cleared up. This is rare and precious, and should be encouraged at all times. The second sign is when kaizen topics get smaller and smaller, not larger and larger, and that kaizen teams start discussing standards – how to establish them, how to share them, how to make them evolve.

On the gemba, kaizen should lead to creating standardized work, and practicing standardized work should highlight the next kaizen activity. Seeing this two-time engine starting to tick is a clear sign that something is changing in the way people see their own work. They are now starting to own it and feel that they can study and change their own work methods to improve their performance. Their ideas and experiences count. They’re committed to improving their own performance, no longer content to explain they can’t do anything because of this or that reason outside their immediate control.

Of course, this is very unlikely to happen unless the next level up of management has also demonstrably tackled cross-department kaizen and shown that larger issues can also be resolved. Yes, it is possible to ask the IT department for a change in the system without being blown off. Sure we can work with sales to understand what customers really need as opposed to what the system tells us, and so on.

Which brings us to what I look for. My rule of thumb is the ability of the CEO to stretch her vision from looking for suggestions to high-level questioning of business challenges. Implementing an individual suggestion is only proof of listening: Look, I’ve done what you said. No reinterpreting, no rewording, no taking the idea from the person to do something else with it. Seeing how this suggestion relates to the larger business issues is a sure sign of lean thinking. Being able to do so mainly involves a careful buildup of visual management, kaizen efforts, and dojos to master standards. Yet there it is.  I look for how well CEOs relate suggestions to larger issues and follow through local implementation with broaching larger kaizen topics with their own teams (suggestions often unveil much larger problems that have to tackled at a higher management level).

I’m not sure any one is ever fully autonomous in lean – I certainly still need my senseis to prod me and push me out of the routines of my comfort zone. Still, autonomy does show on the gemba when performance improves and because every time you return to the same place something has physically changed: they have taken responsibility and ownership for their work. And when you look at how they do that, you can see that every local leader is taking on smaller and smaller kaizen topics to make routine work easier for employees (foot movement, hand movement, eye movement) and then asking themselves: what next?

The flow of kaizen ideas is what makes a lean organization outperform its competitors. The flow of kaizen ideas also means that standards (i.e. the way we normally work) are understood and mastered for each person. I guess that is what I’m really looking for: the flow of kaizen and how this flow is directed to clear performance improvement, by involving everybody all the time in better observation, better discussion, and greater mastery of their work.

3 Comments | Post a Comment
Bin wang July 1, 2015

very good article to share with us ,thank you ! samwang


Eda July 1, 2015

Great article, thank you!

Mohan Boovaragan July 7, 2015

Very Good Article i Like the post "Many of the best lean managers I know are quiet types"..

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