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As head of a lean office, what must I do to really walk the talk?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I am the head of a lean office. I’d like to lead by example, but it occurs to me that we often make the very same mistakes we coach others not to do. What must I watch out for in order to really walk the talk?

What an interesting question. I don’t know in general, but as co-founder of the French Lean Institute can think of a few lean leadership bad mistakes I’ve made which I’ve spent years correcting – still a work in progress, I fear. Maybe this will help.

The one thing I think we got right with our small group of co-founders was to realize that, in order to grow a lean movement from scratch, we needed: 1/ voluntary participation from lean enthusiasts, and 2/ within this group to spot natural leaders who’d take on responsibilities and help us research and communicate lean thinking.

But looking back I can definitely see pain points where I haven’t applied basic lean thinking to myself.Fifteen years down the line, I feel we’ve been doing okay as our institute is fully voluntary – everyone contributes their time pro bono – and with several leaders supporting specific activities. But looking back I can definitely see pain points where I haven’t applied basic lean thinking to myself.

#1: Not stepping up to societal challenges

Overall, the biggest mistake I’ve made is one you’ll probably think strange: being too slow to respond to societal challenges, such as environment, gender parity, or digital world. We started lean as most people do, from production – and mostly automotive programs. Thanks to my teachers, I moved on to engineering and grasping the connection between value analysis and value engineering – the real fight to win is in engineering. But it was all very much automotive and production-centric. It took me many years to realize that people relate very differently to common challenges we need to respond to together and internal plans we’d like to implement.

From watching, again and again, Fujio Cho’s introduction of the Toyota Way 2001, it finally dawned on me that he expressed strategy as accepting societal challenges and bringing everyone on board to build a response. In the end, this radically changed our approach at the institute and led to the book The Lean Strategy.

The funny part is that, of course, we still largely fail at these challenges. We’re okay on parity as many women leaders have emerged, we’re moving steadily towards lean in digital, but are still far too weak on lean and green – our attempts have had trouble getting off the ground so far. But the difference to our collective leadership from “here’s what we’d like to do” to “here’s what we need to face and tackle,” is visible and powerful.

#2: Not defining the mission clearly enough

What’s the mission? What do we intend to do and what does success look like? It took us a long time to understand the value of darumas. Start a project by blackening one eye – end the project by blackening the second one.

This daruma thinking got us to clarify the missions in each thing we intended: what challenges were we responding to? What was our response? How would we envision success goal posts, etc?

We realized, for instance, that as a thinktank, our mission was to direct people to lean, not coach or train them – that was a consultant’s job. We moved away from seeing ourselves as a training/consulting provider to more of a publisher in the widest sense, with activities to introduce and orient, not support. I realize this won’t apply to a kaizen office, but I believe the thinking is sound: what are the darumas you intend to complete? No matter how long it takes.

Clarifying the missions is a collective job – this is not one person telling others “Mr. Phelps, your mission …” this is about getting consensus on the challenge and how we intend to face it and what the mission should be. Daruma thinking!

#3: Waiting too long before setting up a kanban

Lean was born of kanban, and that is that. It took us years to set up our first heijunka board for institute activities and grasp how to use kanban on ourselves. Then a couple of more years before asking each activity leader to do the same on their activity. Now, the difference between where we have kanban and where we don’t is stunning.

kanban supports a value stream. Not only does it enable throughput, it also makes it possible to discuss how well we’re achieving the mission at every release. It’s pure magic.

Not all of our activity leaders take up kanban, and it’s not required. But still, the difference is stark both in the power of the technique and, in your phrase, to show that we walk the talk. I’d start there.

#4: Asking people to do something without training them first

Kaoru Ishikawa’s interpretation of PDCA goes this way:

  1. Determine goals and targets;
  2. Determine methods of reaching the goals;
  3. Engage in education and training;
  4. Implement work;
  5. Check the effects of implementation;
  6. Take appropriate action.

My emphasis. It’s soooo easy to skip step 3. Training is awkward, particularly with volunteers. They tell you they know (even if they don’t) and it’s tempting not to challenge that and just let people get on with … failing.

Yes, there is a lean tendency to throw people into the pond and see if they sink or swim, but let’s not throw them in and walk away – let’s watch carefully and as part of a training strategy.

Training is emotionally draining both to the trainer and the trainee. The trainee is sometimes in the mood, sometimes not. The trainer has sometimes the patience and mental availability, sometimes not. All in all, this is an easy step to miss.

But then when things go pear shape, if nothing is set up to correct without blame by calmly taking one problem after the other, taking appropriate action tends to be rash, conflict-driven, and counterproductive. Engaging in education and training creates a relationship framework that enables making adjustments and corrections while strengthening the relationship rather than mindlessly destroying it. Tricky one.

#5: Not paying enough attention to outside partners

I remember that old-time Toyota senseis used to start fixing quality problems by investigating suppliers and checking the relationships there. It took me a long time to click that this was part of the power of a just-in-time supply chain: value sucked in by capillarity and not extracted by purchasing contracts.

But that key lesson is easy to forget. When you run a varied set of activities, there are bound to be many outside partners, whether within the company or out. Having good working relationships with each of them is one of the keys to the success of the activities, but too often we’re so busy dealing with the fallback from having botched the previous point that we don’t even look at supplier relationships. For us,  it’s the publisher who actually prints the books, the conference centers who host events, the accountant, and so on.

Mostly, things are fine, and then they’re not. The point is we rarely have a Plan Per Person to look into each of the partner relationships and constantly ask us: is the way we’re handling things strengthening the relationship or weakening it.

This is particularly true when someone changes at the partner site, and we tend to assume all will continue like before but it never does. In my personal case I had a good working relationship with the person in charge of McGraw-Hill’s professional blog, and writing pieces for her (we’d set up a kanban) was fun because the mission was to write about lean without ever mentioning lean to reach a wider audience – quite a stretch exercise for this author. Alls well. Posts were in the top reads and so on. Then she tells me she’s moving on and someone else is taking over her job. I never heard from the newbie. I never reached out. The value stream just died.

You might say this is typical of publishing, and yes this industry is in a mess, but I believe this is far more general and something we still don’t pay enough attention to.

#6: Not being patient enough with emotional reactions to quality discussions

Another tough one. Ego. As I understand it, we’re all social creatures, which means our stone-age brains are constantly buffered the contradictory instincts to fit in and to control things to have them as we want.

There is a full-time instruction hard-coded that says: “control all conversations so that you’re always right and never to blame.” And every time you are contradicted, criticized or – heavens forbid – blamed, you get upset, quite upset or slam-the-door-I’ll-show-you-all upset.

Most adults realize how silly this is and control this knee-jerk reaction to a larger extent depending on their personality and circumstances, but it’s always there. Discussions about quality are by nature criticism of some sort. So this happens:

Lean conversation

Human conversation

Give me some context? What happened? How bad is it? Are we helping the mission or is this a setback?

Now? You want to talk about this now? It’s really not a good time and nothing happened much – it’ll go away.

What was the method? Where did it go awry? What standard did we miss, was unclear, or plain wrong?

I did nothing wrong. I did what I thought was best and then so-and-so reacted badly and screwed it all up; you know what they’re like.

What performance should we correct? How fast?

Can we just please forget it? I’ve got so much on my plate. You just don’t understand.

What do you think the root cause is? What makes you think that? Why?


How are we going to go about it? What are the alternatives? What are the pros and cons? Where’s the win? What’s the cost, short-term and long-term?

I’ve said all along what we should’ve have done was … It would be easier if you let me do it my way and all these other idiots would just do what they’re supposed to do.

How do we make that happen? Who needs to be involved to do what? How do we schedule this? Who babysits these actions?

I’ll do it, I’m telling you. Can we stop this now? I’ve got to get on with my life.

Is it working? Are we having the effect we hoped? Do we need to adjust?

Again! Why do you keep blaming me for everything! The pressure is unbearable, I’m doing my part while no one else is and I’m getting the blame?

What else do we need to change if we want this to stick and not happen again?

Oh, come on; move on or get lost.

The main difficulty is to accept that the “human” side of the conversation will happen no matter what. The key is to create enough of a safe place that it happens harmlessly while you pursue the lean conversation.

And this means patience. And recognizing your own ego is at it. Finding the other person more interesting that whatever you have to say. In other words, listening.

Never easy.

#7: Not insisting enough on A3s to test assumptions

We all know that assumptions are killers. We all know it’s incredibly hard to surface assumptions, especially your own because, well, they are assumptions. One big mistake I’ve made is to be way to slow to adopt A3s as a way to clarify assumptions (not as a way to drive projects). We’re still not good enough at it, although we keep teaching others to do it. Classic case of talking the talk but not walking the walk.

#8: Being too slow to set up clear metrics

In a similar vein, the Institute’s running changed the day Catherine put up a single-sheet metrics tables. First, we could discuss them and mix operational and financial metrics to discuss in depth the mission and the method. Secondly, it makes follow-through much easier now that we know where we are on a monthly basis.

Metrics is clearly my weak point because I know too much about how mindlessly pursuing outputs makes you miss outcomes, but clear, shared, metrics are absolutely key to everyone’s involvement in the collective project. There is no debate. And I wish we’d done that much sooner.

#9: Not defining narrowly kaizen and experiments

In the lean world, everyone and his dog talks about “kaizen” and “experiments” and “learning” – often as an excuse to justify hare-brained, poorly executed schemes. Let’s be serious. We learn if we go through repeated experiences as part of a learning curve. Real kaizen projects have to be clear-cut:

  • Simple purpose – which waste do we want to eliminate?
  • Standard method to explore the topic;
  • Repeated – do it again, and again on the same area;
  • Discussed and bolstered up with standards.

Throwing spaghetti on a wall to see what will stick is not kaizen. kaizen means understanding a typical problem, a typical solution, and working at it in different varying contexts and situations. On the shop floor, operator foot movements is a typical kaizen topic because it always will be an issue. As event organizers, the charisma of the presenter and the quality of the talk are good kaizen topics because they will always be a problem.

Even on such lose issues, we try to have standards. For instance, we’ve broken down “charisma” into “charismas” to try and help people find the style they’re most comfortable with and create rapport with their audience. We have story-telling standards for talks. None of this is easy of course because it’s work and to be sure we have way too few well-defined kaizens. Definitely a fail, and something we need to work harder to improve.

The first step here is not to accept the “experiment” language to describe flying by the seat of your pants. Winging it is winging it – it’s fine, it’s fun. But it’s not kaizen.

#10: Never saying thank you often enough

That one should be obvious, particularly with a volunteer organization – but … Yes, thank you. Thank you for your interest in lean. Thank you for continuing reading my columns and the lively discussions on LinkedIn.

Thank you.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Andrew Bishop May 14, 2019

Very nice point about societal challenges.  Between this thinking and Lean Impact (Mei) maybe we can get beyond making big differences in small places.  Time is short.

Can you elaborate on your use of "kanban" in this consultancy setting?  A visual signal to make, move or buy?  Or more along the lines of "personal kanban" that has been discussed elswhere (e.g., Dan Markovitz, Factory of One)?   Second is more about leveling and capacity than pull, I think.  Thanks!

Troy Nguyen May 30, 2019

Thanks for sharing. It's so good 

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