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Why you can't convince your boss to support lean activities, unless ...

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Dear Gemba Coach

I work as a deployment champion in a manufacturing company, but I don’t have the support of my managers because they don´t believe in the lean methodology. Which lean tools can be used to help them believe?

None. Accept it and move on. This is a question I get asked often and, so far, I’ve not seen a single case of someone ever convincing their manager by explaining lean, or even demonstrating lean. Bosses know better, they’re convinced that’s how they got to be bosses, and that’s the end of that. The sooner you accept that this door is closed, the earlier you’ll look for another way into the problem.

It gets worse: you can’t – or almost can’t – teach lean thinking to another person. Trust me: I’ve tried. I’ve run seminars and courses for over 20 years now. I won’t say zero success, but a very low rate of success. Maybe I’m just not a good teacher. People who take the courses remain sympathetic to lean, keep interested, but very rarely start practicing. Over the years most people I’ve instructed in the classroom (different from trained on the Gemba) have stayed on the surface of lean and not taken the deep dive into lean thinking.

What can we do? I have, however, been somewhat successful at engaging quite a few CEOs into lean. Did I convince them? No, they were already convinced. Did I teach them? Not much. What then? I strove to replicate what my father did with me, and what his sensei did with him:

  1. Practice lean thinking myself.
  2. Point towards opportunities to practice lean thinking in your Gemba.
  3. Spend hours observing and discussing the ins and outs of the problems we find.

In other words you can’t convince someone to take interest in lean, you can’t teach them how to do lean, but you can practice lean yourself and bring them in, particularly if your efforts make them look good. Human nature.

Six Questions to Ask Yourself

All right, so you can’t convince your manager, you can’t teach lean to others: what can you do? Prepared or not, you can go ahead and practice. In the mid-eighties, Toyota explicated its thinking system to the executives of its suppliers in an effort to create mutual trust and show them how they could benefit from joining just-in-time in the whole supply chain (as described in Jim Womack and Dan Jones’s Seeing the Whole).

This step-by-step method starts with spelling out the right goals. In your current conditions, as head of a department, team or working on your own, what would be your specific answers to the following questions?

  1. What is my next step to improve the physical or moral safety of people in my area?
  2. What is my next step to improve the quality of what we do for our internal customers? How does that affect the final customer and the entire company’s competitive edge?
  3. What is my next step to add one more product, feature, or service to what we already do that would please our customers without increasing the need for dedicated resources?
  4. What is my next step to reduce the lead time of what we do (from when someone asks us for something to when we deliver it) and reduce backlogs or inventories through increased flexibility?
  5. What is my next step to reduce costs by improving productivity of either the capital I’m being entrusted with or the labor that is being assigned to me by taking away unnecessary rework, waiting, moving, transporting,
  6. What is my next step to reduce the environmental footprint of our department?

Just asking yourself these six questions will lead you to see your own activity, whether you work on your own or your department if you run one in a very different light. Answering these questions can lead you to establish goals to become leaner in terms of greater safety, higher quality, more variety, shorter lead-times, lower costs, and reduced environmental footprint. Many of these steps will seem difficult in your environment, but that’s exactly the point of lean thinking: Place an imaginary gun to your head and think: I must do this.

Then after having defined the “why” Toyota leads us through the “How” by looking at how we can move operations towards reaching the previous goals. This, essentially, consists of understanding the twin pillars of just-in-time and jidoka. First, just-in-time:

  • What is the takt time of my activity and how far from takt time are we actually working? Do we batch? Why? Where? How could we plan capacity closer to takt time?
  • How continuously do we do a job from start to finish? Do we pile things on one desk before moving it to another? Do we send work to an external department and wait for it to come back (while we get ahead on other tasks)? Do we start jobs in parallel hoping that somehow it will all get done on time?
  • Do we push work through the system or do we pull it? When a new job comes, do you immediately assign it to someone, or do you hold it in a waiting queue until the one person has cleared her desk? Are we doing jobs one-by-one in the sequence of demand?

Then jidoka:

  • Does every member of your team understand which work helps customers and which creates problems? Can they spot issues when they do the work itself and do they call for help? How quickly do you respond when someone has a doubt and how good are you at solving work environment problems coming from the rest of the organization? If you can’t stop at first defect, getting closer to takt time is impossible since discovering mistakes late screws up delivery. Conversely, the only way to spot more detailed mistakes is to work closer to takt time (and not have the latitude to park the work and start another task.)
  • How well do you separate people’s work from systems and machine work? When your staff needs something done, can they just press a button and move on to something else, or do they need to work with the machine or system to get their job done. In logistics, is your staff delivered everything they need to do their job without worrying about it, or do they have to look for parts in storage areas. When working with computer systems, do they get the information they need google-like, or do they need to extract what they need from systems by doing many operations? Without autonomous systems, it’s very difficult to reach continuous flow. Conversely, without seeking continuous flow, there is no pressure to make machines or systems more autonomous.

You Can’t Improve Anything Yourself

The very process of observing your own department carefully and asking yourself these questions well very likely completely change how you see things. Before you’ve done anything you’ll have started acquiring lean glasses – in this, you’ll have already started changing yourself. Then, in order to point out these questions to your staff, you can learn about a few visual management techniques which will ask the very same questions real time. For instance, a production analysis board shows everyone what the hourly output targets are, where we are real-time, right now, and what obstacles do we face to achieve takt time. A kanban board (even in office or engineering) will show whether we’re taking jobs one-by-one in sequence or not.

Is that enough? Well, to some degree this will already impress your manager as your area now becomes far more legible and organized. But still, at some point we’ve got to get down to the real work of improving. There, lean is a hard master: You can’t improve anything yourself. No matter how clever and right your own ideas are about fixing the process, lean discipline tells you how to go about it to engage your staff in problem solving and kaizen. Toyota helps us here again by specifying the three key activities that will help you lead your staff with “respect,” developing their competence and autonomy in running their own work and helping you succeed by succeeding themselves:

  • Standards: By looking at daily performance problems and how individuals solve them, you can start focusing on standards. Problems, after all, have to be expressed as a gap to a standard, and every time the standard is unclear is an opportunity for you to ask people to write the first version of the standard (or look for it in the procedures of the company) and then as the problem is solved, ask for a suggestion to improve the standard. This helps in both better understanding standards and engaging staff in solving problems and creating their own work standards – whilst exploring the existing procedures in greater detail (procedures are usually there for a reason, although not necessarily smart in given circumstances, but can’t be ignored).
  • kaizen: You can also point towards specific performance improvement opportunities that involve the entire team and ask the team to study its own collective work method, come up with new ideas and then plan how to do things better. By trying things out, measuring outcomes and then deciding how to change the way we do thing one topic at a time, you’re also developing PDCA thinking in your team, as well as improving performance and fixing processes. People are then involved in better working together and having a say on how they run their own work environment, which makes them all the more likely to keep their own standards.
  • Heijunka: The usual result of working on daily performance problem solving and kaizen of work methods typically is the realization that we’re planning work very poorly. First, we ignore calendar events that we know will come every year (yes, if you work with Asia, everything stops for the Chinese New Year every year, with Germany for Mardi Gras every year). By better planning work ahead with a serious look at calendars we can better anticipate peaks and troughs and start leveling work. Secondly, in order to be capable to level work, we need to work on daily fractioning batches and mixing work so that we do a little of everything every day rather than a lot of one thing one day, and a lot of another the next. These planning activities are essential to both making work easier on a daily basis and bringing the team together on understanding what is asked of them and that, no, taking all holidays at the same time is not such a great idea for our customers.

Moving Up or Out

To sum up, by practicing lean thinking yourself you learn to:

  1. See work differently and have a clearer idea of where you want to take your team to increase value and eliminate waste.
  2. Point to how you want to go about it by getting your mind around the interactions between a higher level of just-in-time and a better level of jidoka.
  3. Lead your team to take responsibility for its own work by instructing them in problem solving, improvement, and work leveling.

As you do this, even small step by very small step, you’ll find your area will reach some basic stability, your output will increase,  and your team members will feel more engaged, more involved, more respected, and their morale will improve. In all likelihood (and from painful experience) this will not persuade your managers to get interested in lean, but it will make you more persuasive, and your manager will support you more, and maybe expand your area of responsibility and offer you the opportunity to do it again.

Although I’ve yet to see a manager convinced by one of his staff to adopt lean, I have also seen every person seriously committed to lean learning themselves move up the corporate ladder (although, sometimes, not in the same company).  Lean works, and by practicing lean, you get promoted, or greater responsibility, and certainly, very quickly, listened to more. When that happens, don’t try to convince anyone they should get interested in lean. Again, learn to see the new area better with lean thinking glasses, point to what could be improved and lead the lean change yourself by supporting problem solving, kaizen, and Heijunka.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Steven Leuschel November 16, 2015

I would also add:

1. Grasp the situation. Your managers are probably doing some Lean tools and don't even know it or call it lean. Leverage those successes to get more successes. 

2. Focus on the positive. Too many lean champions see the gap and think they can close it by just doing problem solving. Getting leaders to go see and recognize the positive will go much further than trying to help them by pointing out and fixing problems. Capture their hearts, then capture their minds. It's much easier to point out problems than point out the positives.

3. Make your boss look good. Chances are, s/he made it to that position because they have positive traits that are linked to lean behaviors (not all but some). It's your job to grasp what those traits are and leverage them. 

People need to respect you before you can help them. Follow what Michael outlines, and there's a greater chance that people including your boss will respect you. Leverage the positive!

David Shechter November 26, 2015

learning learn is so similar to studying a martial art.  The journey is an endless continuation of daily practice and reflection, always moving forward.

Two sentences really struck me: "when you change the way you see things, the things you see change.  You must place an imaginary gun to your head".  

Ultimately you can only change yourself and part of that change is continual practice.

Thank you Dr. Balle.  Your observations have helped me change the way I view lean.

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