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Should we do lean maturity audits?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Should we continue to do lean maturity audits and, if so, how often?

Well, it depends on what you’re trying to achieve – competence? Or compliance?

Let’s take a step back and check our assumptions. In the West, we tend to think that processes (step-by-step practices) will deliver outputs, and the sum of these outputs will deliver outcomes.

We think that because our management theory is largely obsessed with goals, attaining goals, monitoring goals, leading action plans to achieve these goals, and explaining things away when goals are not met. We actually find it hard to imagine human activities that are both valuable and not goal-oriented (actually, there are many, draw a short list :^))

In this worldview, it’s reasonable to ask ourselves: are people doing enough to reach the goals? Which implies:

  1. Measuring the goals in terms of outputs,
  2. Measuring the application of practices in terms of efforts,
  3. Monitoring people for both outputs and efforts,
  4. Asking them to try harder when goals are not reached.

Lean thinking starts with a different set of assumptions. We accept that goals are necessary, but largely arbitrary and motivational devices to get everyone on the same page rather than valuable in themselves. On the other hand, we’re obsessed with challenges: the large-scale problems we need to solve if we want to thrive.

The thinking is that the world-at-large is always changing and competitors are always coming up with new ways of doing business – so we’re always challenged as well, but we often don’t understand where or how.


Processes are lagging: what we put in place to rise to the previous challenge – fighting the previous war. The lean assumption is that when people better understand the process and what they do, look for waste in the process and their own actions, dig deeply into the underlying theories, try new ways of working, they eventually emerge with both a better collective grasp of the challenges and of possible changes to meet these challenges successfully.

With both worldviews we need indicators:

  • Traditional worldview: Monitor outputs and practices to know where to pressure people for greater compliance and stronger efforts.
  • Lean worldview: Have reliable measures for people to conduct their own PDCA exercises to see whether the changes they initiate have a benefic effect or not.

 You can make people do something, but you can’t make them think.

In other words, you can monitor whether a certain practice is in place or not. Say, red bins: some have it, some don’t. You can also monitor results, such as PPMs at inspection. What no one knows how to monitor  -- other than going there and looking and discussing -- is whether the people who use the red bins get any useful learning out of the red bins and, as a result, learn to better define their own:

  1. Challenges: How large is the quality issue? Will we get the next product if we don’t solve it? Is it about suppliers? Our own technical knowledge? How do we define success?
  2. Changes: We really need to change how we store raw material because the parts at the bottom of the stack are squeezed by those at the top and it affects their dimensionality – by the way, do we really need all these parts in inventory?
  3. Competence: We never considered how the way raw material was delivered to the plant as a critical part of the process – we need to update our theory about making good parts first time by including the physical delivery method as part of the process and making sure we work with suppliers to sustain that.

In this case, you can monitor whether this plant has the maturity to have a certain practice in place, such as red bins (yes/no), but you can’t monitor whether they use the red bins smartly to find and face complex, local, often subtle technical issues, such as the density of plastic granules fed into the injection press due to poor transport conditions.


In conducting a maturity audit, you’re essentially checking that everyone understands the basic techniques of improvement and has them in place. That’s as far as it goes. Conducting the audit lands you an interesting problem: 

Some are good at the audit but show no improvements in their results.

Some are good at the audit and show improvements in their results.

Some are bad at the audit and show no improvements in their results.

Some are bad at the audit and show improvement at their results.

When they’re bad at the audit and don’t progress, you have a managerial problem, not a lean one – what is going on with that team?

When they’re good on the audit and show progress, they’re blue-eyed boys and girls and you can parade them at conferences – they justify your wages.

But life is complex, and in the majority of cases, they are okay-ish at the audit but show no progress in their results, or, trickier they show regular improvement but consider your audits corporate BS and don’t even bother to fill them in. In both of these, very frequent, cases, conducting the audit makes you look like an idiot. How can you justify people with good grades but not results? How can you defend against star performers who ignore the corporate raindance?

The deep flaw of audits and corporate systems, in general, is that they are people-free (everyone has to implement regardless of circumstances) and static (all tools in place at the same time). Conversely, progressing through PDCA is people-centric (people grasp one of their problems and embrace it to improve themselves) and dynamic (tools are introduced as and when needed to solve the problems we face).

Granted, certain basic tools such as kanbans, or red bins are precisely there to reveal problems. But you don’t need to audit for that – just check on the ground whether people are doing it or not.

The large overall issue with setting goals for people, then imposing due process, and then monitoring whether they both progress towards the goals while applying every good practice in the corporate book is that the people themselves are completely dispossessed of their personal challenge. Why would anyone step in the batter’s box, take personal responsibility to achieve a goal and to think hard about what to change to do so, if everything is prescribed from the start? Quite naturally, they learn to follow the process, play the game, keep their heads down and justify their results (or lack of) when questioned.


To speak plainly, maturity audits or any kind of standardized grades for that matter work to get people from terrible to average: it tells them what is expected of them to just get started. But to get from average to good, these monitoring systems are worse than useless: they actively discourage good people to get personally engaged in problems, involved with their teams, and look for better ways.

Worse, they encourage people to shift the problem from “think to improve” to “find clever ways to look good on the audit.”

Worse, if these audits are taken seriously, they will put forward fixed mindset people (always look good, never look foolish, never take a chance on learning) and put growth mindset people on the spot (take chances to try something new, it’s all right if it doesn’t look good at the start, we’ll figure it out as we go).

When you first start a new practice, such as better controlling the logistics of supplied parts, it likely looks terrible as everyone is busy figuring it out and jury-rigging solutions. Although it might lead to brilliant results, in the end, it will also cost you points at the audit.

From corporate’s point of view, the deeper trade-off is:

  • Competence: We need smart thinkers to think outside of the box to find innovative solutions to structural problems.
  • Compliance: But we need fixed stable frames to organize collective action in a given direction across the board.

And yes, it’s a trade-off. No easy answers.

To answer your question, conducting a practice audit once in a while to check what practices are used or not in the company is a smart idea. This will identify glaring gaps here and there where people have simply abandoned a basic or another. It will never make you more competitive, but it will check that the basic managerial job is done.

However, standardizing and routinizing such audits is plain silly as people will habituate to it (respond habitually and stop thinking about it) and then learn how to game the system rather than look at the issues being revealed. Regular maturity audits just add to the layer of waste – useless activities that cost real money, distract the people who do the work and put forward the wrong people.

Should you conduct process-type audits? Absolutely, but never twice the same. Should you continue with an established practice maturity audit to see if there is “progress” on a stable scale of compliance – not if you want real progress results. To succeed, you need to engage your best people in doing their best thinking so that they work things out together – I fail to see how any kind of audit will ever achieve that.

3 Comments | Post a Comment
Jay M. October 29, 2018

This is interesting and brings up some good thought that will influence my work.  Thanks! 

However, I'm troubled by the phrase "blue-eyed boys and girls and you can parade them at conferences." I understand the point you're making but I think you could make it without using a term that perpetuates racial inequity.  I hope you agree.

Michael October 29, 2018

Did I get the idiom wrong? My understanding of "blue-eyed boy" is that it applies to anyone of any origin: "An often derogatory term used to describe a man who is respected and treated especially well by an authority figure."

Rob November 7, 2018

Sorry Michael, always enjoy your post but not this one. First, the way in which people fundementally think is not that different, yes some cultural differences exist but neurologically we are the same. It is the companies culture based on guiding principles that deterimine behavior = not being located in the west or a product of western culture overall. Also not a fan of the assumption of motivation that supports the parading "blue-eyed boys and girls", what if the auditor just wants to help fellow co-workers in their development and support the overall goals of their employer. Finally it all come down to what your auditing. Check if various tools are being used will not provide gains but scheduled checks of the management structure and how it enables scientific thinking to the operator level + connecting to the overall strategic goals of the company can be a powerful learning practice.

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