Lean management is the polar opposite of the traditional approach, which is why traditional managers rarely understand why the necessary lean changes make any sense at all. Converting from traditionally run batch-and-queue type operations to lean flow-and-pull processes requires an entirely different way of thinking.
Traditional managers, for example, have been trained to believe that producing in large batches results in the lowest cost per item. They also think that organizing by functional departments is the most efficient approach. But, of course, organizing by function exacerbates the batching and forces companies to produce according to a forecast.
Then along comes a lean leader who says, “get rid of the functional departments, stop producing in big batches, and only build to the customers’ orders” — which makes no sense to a traditional manager. And even if they could grasp the theory behind lean thinking, they would have no idea how to make the operational changes required in finance and accounting, sales tactics and terms, product development, IT, strategic planning, and human resources. Yikes!
In my 40 years of implementing lean in various companies, I have never seen a company leader buy into lean and adopt its practices on their own using existing resources.
In my 40 years of implementing lean in various companies, I have never seen a company leader buy into lean and adopt its practices on their own using existing resources. They need help at first obtaining the knowledge of what lean is (the thinking and philosophy, if you will), and then with guidance and the hands-on experience of how to go about making the change. They need help answering questions such as: Where should you start? What obstacles can you expect? What is leadership’s role? What is even possible?
The lean sensei answers these questions and provides essential help by bringing the knowledge and experience to show how to transition from traditional management to lean management. Without this help, you cannot successfully transform to lean.
You have many options for obtaining the required lean knowledge. You can engage a lean consultant to bring it to your organization. You could also hire someone who has implemented lean in a couple of other companies to lead your lean conversion. Or you could train some of your existing employees by sending them to lean seminars and boot camps and having them form a Kaizen Promotion Office (KPO).
In my experience, the approach that works best is to hire a great lean consultant and plan to have their guidance for the next ten-plus years. The key is to pick the right one. There are many available candidates but few worthy ones. Avoid the large traditional consulting firms that focus on strategy and have a “lean team.” They will charge you a lot of money in return for many fancy PowerPoint presentations and the advice of bright young associates with little hands-on lean experience. Focus instead on finding a firm with direct experience in the Toyota Production System. Ensure that their bona fides include working for Toyota or being trained by ex-Toyota experts. Select only the teachers with hands-on experience helping companies convert to lean and achieve demonstrated financial and organizational benefits.
I say this from personal experience. As a group executive at The Danaher Corporation, I and one of my group presidents, George Koenigsaecker, decided to turn around Jacobs Vehicle Equipment (Jake Brake) using the Toyota Production System, known at the time as “just-in-time.” We started out using Arthur Andersen’s consulting arm. Lots of PowerPoint presentations, lots of young associates, and lots of money. It was slow going, but they did help some. Unfortunately, while they helped us create a couple of cells and made some progress, most of that came from aggressive behavior from George and me.
Then we came across the Shingijutsu consultants. They were from Nagoya, Japan, and had all had spent their careers at Toyota — the last ten years or so working directly with Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System. They spoke only Japanese and never gave us a PowerPoint or even a written report. Instead, they taught us how to organize and run a kaizen event and always guided people hands-on on the shop floor. Most importantly, they taught us how to see — and learn how to eliminate — waste. They were very rough and called themselves “Insultants.” But, boy, did we learn fast. We did whatever they told us to do even when we thought it was the stupidest thing we ever heard (which was about 50% of the time). And if their suggestion did not work the first time, which occurred most of the time, we would never let it go back to the way it was. We just stuck with the change and fixed it.
We learned — as you will too — that the consultants can’t always be with you. We had them for one week per month. We needed to do kaizen every day, so we created a Kaizen Promotion Office staffed with some of our brightest talent. To prepare, we had them stick to the Shingijutsu consultants while they were in town to learn from them. They spent the other three weeks of the month running and following up on kaizen work — an essential step that must be part of your plan. We had to train the KPO in-house, as there was no other lean expertise out there back in 1987. Today you have the luxury of being able to hire outside lean expertise to start your own KPO as well as train your in-house talent.
The KPO’s full-time job is kaizen and learning to become lean experts, which is a wonderful training ground for your future lean leaders: two years in the KPO then on to higher management roles.
Your lean sensei will provide expertise and push your people to remove waste.
Your lean sensei will provide expertise and push your people to remove waste. For example, Shingijutsu pushed us hard and showed us how to create one-piece-flow cells and standard work. They could merely look at something, say, “this is all no good,” and then quickly show us a much better way. Without their challenges, not much would have happened.
Take the simple example of setup reduction: If you need two to three hours to set up your equipment, you are forced to produce in batches, eliminating your ability to achieve flow. Unfortunately, most traditional managers take setup times for granted, saying, “Nothing we can do about that.” A lean sensei will stop you cold if you think that way. Prodded by these guides, I got involved in setup-reduction kaizen events that reduced:
- a rolling mill from 14 hours to 6 minutes
- a 750-ton injection molding machine from 5 hours to 5 minutes
- a 150-ton punch press from 3 hours and 10 minutes to 1 minute
- a cold header stamping press from 2 hours to 1 minute
- a complicated file folder assembly machine from 3 hours 45 minutes to 5 minutes
We achieved these improvements with only minimal capital spending. Machines we used to change three times per week at Wiremold, we started changing 20 to 30 times per day. Without the outside sensei, none of this would have happened.
When I was an operating partner in a private equity firm, I would serve as chairman of many of the companies we bought. One of the first things I did in each case was line up the company with a great outside lean consultant, either Shingijutsu or someone trained by them. Next, I would have the company create a Kaizen Promotion Office and staff it with some of their highest potential employees, so they could learn from the outside consultants. This approach allowed us to do new kaizen events every week while following up on prior ones. It built tremendous momentum in every company. Without introducing the lean expertise of the outside consultants, we would have made slow progress, if any at all.
But don’t forget management’s role in adopting lean thinking and practices. Yes, you need the outside help to bring the lean expertise and “lean eyes” to bear on the waste within your company. But management must eventually become lean experts themselves. When we first started working with Shingijutsu, George and I spent as much time with them as possible, asking questions and getting their insights. Not only were we with them on the shop floor, but we ate dinner with them every night and played golf with them on weekends so we could pump them for more information.
… my recommendation is that every senior staff member participates in six week-long kaizen teams each year and that the CEO, at least for the first year or two, be on 12 week-long kaizen teams per year.
But your real knowledge will come from being on kaizen teams yourself. So my recommendation is that every senior staff member participates in six week-long kaizen teams each year and that the CEO, at least for the first year or two, be on 12 week-long kaizen teams per year. I guarantee you will learn more about your company and your people doing this than you ever dreamed possible.
Get yourself a sensei and give it a try.
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