Dear Gemba Coach,
If lean is based on respect for people, why are sensei gemba visits reputed to be so tough?
Difficult question – partly because precisely, lean is based on respect. What do we mean by “respect”? First, making all our efforts to understand the other person’s perspective from their experience. Second, make sure they can work safely and without harassment. Third, commit to their development in order to support their success. But what if the person is fixated on an attitude that we believe will ensure failure?
A sensei is a finger pointing at muri, mura, muda to try to make people see the next area of self-development. Senseis don’t tell you how to solve a problem. They show you areas where they see problems they believe will help you grow. They can also teach you a tool to explore this problem area for yourself. A sensei will say, for instance, try stopping at every defect on the line for a couple of hours and see what happens. Or try one-piece flow exactly (not three-piece flow) for a shift, and see what happens. Try reducing a batch by half. Try letting a team organize their work area by practicing 5S and so on. The sensei is not telling you what to do. He is telling you how to explore your problem in the lean tradition.
The assumption, however, is that the manager being “sensei-ed” accepts the premises that (1) the sensei has something valid to show them and that (2) by following the sensei’s exercise they will learn something valuable for themselves that will improve performance. These assumptions are not always shared.
Angry at Being “Sensei-ed”
Recently, the COO of a large industrial company and his lean sensei did a gemba walk in a plant run by an excellent fire-fighter. The COO’s perception was that the plant manager had done an excellent job of getting the plant in some form or shape, but it was still a poor performer (no longer a disaster, but still at the bottom of the list) and more was needed. During the gemba visit they pointed out a few obvious problems such as safety (electrical equipment open because the ventilation fan was broken), quality (quarantined products still not inspected after several weeks), batching, and poor maintenance of some critical equipment.
The plant manager explained his difficulties and did not question the fact that what was pointed out was, indeed, a problem – no difficulties there.
However, during the debrief, he would not accept any share of responsibility for any of the problems that had been spotted. The safety issue was due to a fan replacement order sent but not signed by higher management due to cost. The quality issue resulted from the engineering department (not under his remit) who would not come and look at the faulty products. Batching was essential to protect throughput because the poor state of the equipment would not tolerate one-piece flow. Maintenance was impossible on his tight budget and with the maintenance crew he had, and so on.
The COO tried to explain that what was expected of him was to learn to better work with others (corporate, engineering, maintenance, etc.) rather than constantly assign blame, which was, by now, being echoed by his own teams and worsening the reputation of the site. But the manager just got angrier and angrier, blamed the sensei for his arrogance and ignorance and lack of respect for his heroic efforts at saving the plant and … left the room slamming the door.
Then what? I don’t know. Not all sensei visits are tough. Most I’ve witnessed are uncomfortable, but also very interesting and exciting. Still, the fact remains that the job of the sensei is to point at what you’re not looking at, and every human being tends to resist seeing things from another perspective or looks at things previously ignored. That’s why lean is so insistent on a “problems first” attitude (refraining from shooting the carrier of bad news even though you really feel like it). It is precisely because lean respects the person’s experience and perspective that people are not ordered to simply do things, but shown in the hope that they’ll grapple with this developmental zone and come up with a new way of doing things. Yet, let’s face it, this learning process is never easy:
- Problem facing: First, you have to accept there is a problem where you sees none (it’s happened to me a number of times, and it’s never pleasant to be shown you’re completely missing a trick).
- Problem framing: Then, you have to challenge the way you think about a problem and to explore a different calculation (try to explain one-piece flow to someone used to batching).
- Problem solving: Now comes all the hard work of solving a new problem without additional resources, and by stumbling in the dark until you finally get a handle on the issue.
Respect and Refusing to Learn
Some people get problem finding; enjoying discovering new problems as learning opportunities, realizing there are always new perspectives to any situation (the elephant we’re exploring blindfolded is not just a trunk, a leg, a belly, but also tusks, ear, tail, etc.). They actually enjoy learning and the feeling of increased mastery. Others will never get it. This doesn’t mean they’re bad workers – they’ll get what they know done – but it certainly creates a leadership problem in a lean context.
Really, the question is: how do you respect someone who refuses to learn in a lean environment? If we are committed to helping people succeed that means reducing the scope of what they are asked until they’re in their comfort zone – but I doubt they see this as success. No easy answers, and to be honest I don’t know for sure. I have no doubt that (1) respect-for-people is a clear commitment in lean thinking and that (2) lean starts with each person’s individual commitment to self-development. When these two assumptions collide, things do get tough, and I don’t have any general answer other than try to deal with the situation case by case making the best effort to be respectful even though it is unlikely there’ll be a satisfactory outcome in the end.