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I'm all in on our lean effort but how do I get my managers to be more supportive?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

As a business unit director, I am fully on board with lean, do Gemba walks and support kaizen projects. But I find my managers are slow to take an interest and often defend the rules of the company against new ideas from their teams. I try hard to lead by example but it doesn’t seem to work so well – what am I missing?

Maybe nothing. Maybe people are changing, but slower than you’d like. Leading by example is still the strongest way we know to create change, but there’s inevitable pushback. As motivation comes from success, you need to be rigorous with your own motivation and quantify what you describe: none of your middle managers, ever? (Then yes, you have a problem), or some of your middle managers do take interest and do try stuff, but timidly, or not visibly, or not as fast as you’d like. I suspect the latter.

What I find when leaders get into lean is that their managers don’t quite know what is expected of them.What I find when leaders get into lean is that their managers don’t quite know what is expected of them. And leaders don’t always help because the only known way to get into lean is to find a sensei and start challenging stuff on the Gemba, which often works spectacularly, but is often very disconcerting to people. And as there is reluctance to train people before we actually know what we’re doing (which also makes good sense), people feel they’re being asked to do things without being told what.

Imagine you’re a middle manager in your organization and you get the instruction: “do lean.” You’ll going to be wondering:

  • What do they want me to do now?
  • What do they expect?
  • Where should I start?
  • Why should I bother?
  • How can I ignore it? Pretend to do it? Do it with the least personal investment?

And that won’t be unreasonable. This is how any of us feel about any new regulation or initiative. The lean way of doing things would be not to discuss “lean” as if it existed in itself but clarify what you’re trying to do with the business:

  1. Intent: What you’re trying to do with your business unit; what main challenge you’re addressing and how you intend to go about it.
  2. Targets: What are the key targets that translate this intent into concrete terms? How will you monitor these targets – what results are being achieved?
  3. Changes: What practical changes are involved? What changes have you already done, what further changes are you considering?
  4. Theory: What are we learning as we carry out the changes and how is our underlying theory of the business changing?

If we return to the source of lean, Toyota, we can see how they do this in the way they approach the environmental challenge of the current period.

Toyota’s chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada starts with the assessment that the global environment is being lost faster than the speed of the current rate of innovation.  He then breaks this down into six challenges expressed by radical targets:

  1. Challenge: New vehicle zero CO2 emissions
  2. Challenge: Lifecycle zero CO2 emissions
  3. Challenge: Plant zero CO2 emissions

Toyota adds to this more generic challenges that establish the direction of its intent.

  1. Challenge: Minimizing and optimizing water usage
  2. Challenge: Establishing a recycling-based society and systems
  3. Challenge: Establishing a future society in harmony with nature

Concrete But Flexible

The change to reach the first challenge is to accelerate the development of hybrid and full electric vehicles in the entire line-up. They’re looking into the entire cycle to re-use first water, then materials. At the plant level, Toyota is moving from heavy hydraulics to karakuri type equipment to reuse smartly energy, and renewable energy or hydrogen energy to power machinery.

These are very concrete changes that can be asked from product planners, product designers, and plant managers, and indeed, when you visit the plants you can see these changes being enacted step by step. But it is also flexible enough not to define how these changes have to happen – to leave flexibility and initiative to each local manager.

Toyota’s theory is also reaffirmed – it’s philosophy from the early days has been to “contribute to society via technology, and contribute to industrial development through the manufacturing of cars.” Its mission is to bring smiles to people by providing intangible value, through leadership in innovation and technology. Uchiyamada reminds his audience of:

  • 1937: start of automotive production
  • 1957: first Japanese passenger car exported to the US
  • 1966: Corolla motorization
  • 1973: emissions control with catalysts
  • 1985: start of production in North America
  • 1997: Prius (hybrid electric)
  • 2014: Mirai (hydrogen)

By clarifying what we’re trying to do through challenges and targets, how we intend to go about it by making specific changes, and why we think these are the right changes to make by explaining our theory we let people find their own place in the collective project.

Better Storytelling

I was visiting a large company recently that was developing its excellence system. It based it on “values” (care for customers, engage employees, pursue perfection) and then a laundry list of lean tools to implement. As in many of such cases, the monitoring focused on the implementation of actions (tick the box) and not the results these actions were supposed to deliver (accident reduction, les customer complaints, shorter lead-times, etc.). Not surprisingly the leaders of this lean initiative complained about the poor follow-up from operational management and general lack of interest.

Beyond monozukuri (the passion for making products) and hitozukuri (the passion for making people), kotozukuri (the passion for making things happen) is a third lean essential skill: crafting the right storytelling to bring the passion of the engineer to satisfy customers all the way to the details of production.

From what you describe, chances are that you haven’t looked deeply enough into kotozukuri and are missing the importance of crafting common theories among your managers about why and how we do what. One such important story is that our main objective is to maintain service continuity for customers and manage business interruption risk (financial problems, strikes, reorganizations, and consolidation, supplier changes, etc.) rather than, as you say, enforce the rules of the company.

What you’re really asking your people is to use lean techniques to start questioning what they do and look for meaning in their reactions and actions. To help them do so, you need to learn to construct meaningful storytelling and collective leadership that supports their efforts.

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