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What Lean Thinkers Think About The Gold Mine

5/3/2006

I just finished reading The Gold Mine which I find informative and entertaining; I couldn't put it down.

Now, one question comes to mind. In previous CQI projects one of the first things we have done is get all the "stakeholders,” or representatives thereof, together and hopefully form a team.

In the above book, the lean proponents continually bump heads with other workers in the factory who are not familiar with the "lean solution.” Is the process described in the book more or less standard operating procedure for lean conversions or is it a literary device to emphasize the potential conflicts inherent in the lean transformation?

Ah. Good question. First of all, thanks for your kind comments about the book. As a writer, I'm glad that it works as a novel!

As for the question, well, a bit of both really. The truth is that The Gold Mine aims to be far more descriptive than prescriptive -- this is not so much what is supposed to happen (we very much doubt there is one single path to the lean journey) but what has tended to happen in many transformation efforts.

In fact, quite a few lean veterans have chuckled over the book and asked us "How did you hear about my story?" or "This is me; this is exactly what happened to me."

I guess that as lean matures, people will find cleverer ways of introducing lean, but even our most recent experiences tend to make us think that a modicum of conflict is part of the process due to the strong "challenge" aspect of the lean method.

The real question is to try to understand why the book describes many veterans' experience. To my mind, most of the misunderstandings arise from the notion that lean is simply a set of simple activities which, applied to one's normal job, will make it marginally more efficient. So let's have a few kaizen events, and business continues as usual.

This has not been our experience with successful lean implementations. What tends to happen is that as people change their perspective as they acquire "lean glasses" to see waste, they also start making fundamental changes to the way they do their day-to-day jobs. And, to most of us past 30 re-learning how to do what we've always done does not come naturally, not surprisingly. Here are some random examples:

  • The plant manager learns to spend more time on the floor than in her office and challenging "normal" operations.
  • The plant's management meets every week to come up with a leveled production plan signed with blood and committed to "zero reprograms."
  • The logistics manager unplugs the MRP for production programming of all internal flows (stills needs it for many other reasons) and works with kanban cards (which entails counting, re-counting, tracking the cards and containers often by walking the shop floor.) the Logistics manager also has to organize parts deliveries through internal trains and so on.
  • The quality manager is now asked to check the red bins at every shift and react quickly to problems, conduct PDCA, and train operators to quality standards.
  • The production manager has to organize his teams for quick response to operator concerns, and reactivity at EVERY bad part.
  • Supervisors are no longer supposed to be chasing after missing parts and moving operators around, but have safety, quality, and efficiency objectives which they're asked to obtain through standards, training, and asking for suggestions from operators.
  • Operators are asked to take ownership for their quality and come up with suggestions to maintain standards or improve them through kaizen.
  • Maintenance has to identify the most difficult equipment and establish individualized "care" plans for equipment, whilst reacting quickly to operator concerns.
  • In press plants, setters now have to move from one tool change to the next continuously to reduce batches.

And so on. Every one's job is affected to make the plant work in pull and to get rid of waste -- and it's the same in service jobs. As it's hardly possible to have an instant "lean transformation" in everyone's mind, the chances are that you start with someone who "gets it" and then move on from there -- which explains the sequence of conflicts in The Gold Mine.

In the book, one of the bosses is convinced, which is already a very auspicious start as it's not the case in many lean initiatives. And he's convinced because he has acknowledged his problem. Then he gets incredibly lucky, because his HR manager gets it immediately because of her previous fast-food experience (probably one of the most unusual parts of the narrative.)

Then they have to tackle the production manager's mental wall, and to give him lean glasses. As they work with the shop floor to improve operations (we very seldom meet any resistance at shop floor level), they run across the design wall. Further on, as they move in with kanban, they hit the logistics wall -- and sure, they could have done much more to involve logistics from the start, but equally, the logistics manager could have gotten interested of his own accord, seeing what was going on. And so forth.

I can think of a plant where the change is driven by a branch manager/logistics manager team. This is a different configuration because the pull system and kanban are getting implemented far faster than stability in the production cells, as a result, the kanban is very hard to maintain, and the production manager (probably the plant manager as well) is now close to being asked to look elsewhere.

Bumping heads, as you put it, is the result of "lead, follow, or get out the way", and as lean is a system, sooner or the way, every one's job will be touched, and every person will react very differently to the lean challenge, hence the specific path of each plant in the lean transformation.

At the risk of sounding preachy, lean is not a "state," it's an attitude, a state of mind. It's a constant challenging of current processes to reach the true north of better customer satisfaction through the elimination of waste and the development of people. (I personally consider a lean effort successful when a customer is so impressed by the progress they give the plant additional orders.) So lean tends to mean bumping heads every other day as challenging processes and fundamentally solve problems tends not to be a natural human instinct.

Sorry for the long-winded answer. This is indeed a very interesting question. To sum up: if you manage to form a core team of people who "get it," you're maximizing your chances of success, but if there is no conflict at all, chances are you're not doing lean for real (or else you're incredibly lucky and will have spectacular results soon). The Gold Mine was not written as SOP for implementing lean, but as a guide highlighting the main lean discussions to have in the organization, more or less in the usual order, in which they crop up in the lean transformations we have observed. We believe that sooner or later you will have to look into each one of the questions, but the sequence has to be your own path! There's no shortcut; it's about doing it, doing it, and doing it, asking always the same questions, and watching our own answers change with understanding and experience. Lean is not a philosophy, it's a practice.

Thanks again for your interest in our book.

All the best,
Michael Ballé

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