Fake Lean can be very smart. Or rather, I should say convincing at first glance.
I was visiting, not “gemba walking”, a facility of a great manufacturer with well known and respected products. I saw misuzumachis, Kanban cards, U shaped lines, standard work posted on screens, team boards with KPIs written with pencil, customized pipe work bench, and supermarkets. I was told by my host, a manager at this facility, that every problem reported by associates is fixed by the team itself within five days, or by the support team under supervision of the facility manager. It all sounds impressive, right?
While my guide left me alone to go speak with the factory manager, I took five minutes to just watch a team member working in this facility. At the end of this time I had 10 kaizen ideas, least four of which had to do with this person’s safety. She was bending her torso backwards every 20 seconds in order not to hit a screen with her head. She twisted her body 180° several times per minute in order to discard plastic bags in a trash bin which was right behind her. She was raising her shoulder over its normal height because of the length of her screw gun. And so on. Maybe things weren’t going so well after all.
This first suspicion that things weren’t going so well was confirmed later by spot observations along my visit. The production result line was written in red on the team board for the whole week. The problem solving board was filled by A3s full of text, with no pareto, no ishikawa, no shikumi. I didn’t see how team members were identifying gaps to be closed, let alone make visible and track. And this factory, where they say they “hunt for energy savings,” was running several conveyors full time for just a few products per hour. Some products with a limited time life were covered with dust in the maintenance warehouse.
So what is happening in this factory?
Upon further reflection and discussion with its leaders, it occurred to me that Lean was “put in place” here without any consideration for or effort made toward creating a lean culture.
The team member I observed has no chance to speak with leadership about her true problems. Not only this, she hasn’t been helped with how to see and understand them. As a result, she’s focusing less on her work and more on not hitting her head several times per minute.
This tells us a lot about her supervisor’s knowledge and actions he/she is taking or not taking. Perhaps this person feels it’s not their duty to teach anyone how to see or communicate a problem.
This in turn tells a lot about this manager’s manager and his/her actions. Perhaps this person feels it is not their duty to develop a supervisor’s teaching and problem solving skills.
So if this is what’s really happening at this factory, what is this factory doing?
Well, they are using lean tools, brought in by support teams who are surely proud (for good reason) of what they’ve done on the shop floor. Misuzumachi is important, supermarkets are very smart, Kanban works well. But introducing these tools isn’t lean, not at all. A lean culture, beginning from the top level down, is grown simply by teaching and developing skills by solving problems and raising the bar each time a problem is solved. Sure, some managers will learn a lot about “how to” make Kanban, supermarket, misuzumachi and other concepts and tools work, they’ll get some good practice, but none of it will stick without real people development, problem solving, kaizen or iji, true A3s, and consistent lean coaching. Culture cannot happen by itself and it’s not enough to pick and choose lean tools.
What the situation at this factory tells me is that despite some outside support, this organization’s leaders never really had a chance to meet a sensei. The project leader, the facilities manager – neither of them is being coached by a sensei.
As Art Byrne tells you in The Lean Turnaround, if you really want to go lean, first look for a sensei, or you’re going to add a bigger waste to all the wastes you already have in your company. You’ll have trouble getting the results you need. How do you find a lean sensei and not just “lean support”? Perhaps more important than this question is what a real sensei does. A sensei first has his focus on people, their safety, how they do the work, how hard it is for them to ensure production numbers and quality at the source, and how much muda (waste) is hidden in their job. He/she will look at how to ease tasks and make them cyclically repeatable by removing muri (over burden). A sensei is someone who helps you to develop this knowledge.
Taiichi Ohno was famous for asking managers to “step inside the circle” in order to develop problem- seeing, not just problem solving. Steven J. Spear has written in greater detail about this kind of skill development for managers in “Learning to Lead at Toyota” at Harvard Business Review, but coaching others to help them learn to see problems is really what this lean stuff is all about. No matter how much an organization boasts about their lean practices, or your own company does, it’s this ability to see problems that you really want to be looking for.