Few business leaders in the world have applied lean strategy as successfully as has Art Byrne, former CEO of The Wiremold Company — and none have the ability to explain how to do it with such succinctness and clarity. In this excerpt from his book The Lean Turnaround, he describes how a lean conversion will change you as a leader and manager.
How Lean Changes You as a Leader
Make no mistake: Lean will change you as a leader. As we got more advanced in Lean work at Danaher and Wiremold, my approach to my job changed significantly. I became more of a coach and a leader, and less of a manager. My focus shifted completely to where we were going and how we could get there, rather than where we had been. I spent my time encouraging and pushing people to achieve things they might not have thought were possible. There was no better feeling than seeing a team exceed a target that at first seemed impossible.
In essence, I changed from spending a lot of time reviewing last month’s results to focusing on all the processes in each of my various businesses. Yes, I looked at the numbers each month, but I didn’t conduct any formal reviews of them. If a couple of managers’ costs were out of line, I would talk to them and get them back in line. Most of my time, however, was spent trying to make sure that we were making steady progress toward achieving all of the stretch goals aimed at process improvement. I spent a lot of my time on the shop floor looking for what had changed and reviewing the visual control charts at each cell. When I visited one of my companies (I had eight at Danaher, between eight and twelve at any given time at Wiremold, and up to four or five at a time at J. W. Childs), I started on the shop floor so that I could see what progress had been made since my last visit.
My discussions with managers and employees at all levels focused on our value-adding activities. Why couldn’t we go faster? Why weren’t the visual controls up-to-date? Why hadn’t setup times come down more? I spent a lot of time saying “no good” when I saw things on the shop floor that could be improved. I always left a lot of homework to be done before my next visit, and of course all the targets were stretch in nature. My main concern was making sure that everyone on the team was on board and driving for the same goals.
It’s the Work, not the Worker
If you are going to lead, it is imperative that you know that people are following. You could string me along for a little while, but because changes to the value-adding activities tend to be physical in nature, this wouldn’t last long. I would be able to see the lack of progress on my next visit. You either got on board or went away.
This approach, by the way, didn’t mean that I was some kind of ruthless dictator. In fact, the opposite is more accurate. I was seen as part of the team, but with the role of coach. Everyone felt free to approach me with any questions or concerns without fear of recrimination. I encouraged this openness, and our associates really took advantage of it. They asked a lot of good questions and made a lot of good suggestions that I always tried to follow up on. At the same time, they always understood that I was pushing them to get better. They were okay with that. It was just part of the deal. They knew that when I stopped for half an hour to observe some operation, I was looking at the work (the sequence and the way we had it organized), not the worker, and I was thinking of ways to make it better. I always tried to explain to them what I thought was wrong and why we should make it better.
Watching how the workforce responded to changes in the way work was done was always rewarding. People who were very vocal about not wanting to change at first, saying, “This Lean stuff is stupid,” would, three or four weeks later, be your best advocates for doing even more. Similarly, teams that took setup times from 90 minutes to five minutes or from 180 minutes to one minute were more than just a little proud of what they had done. The fact is that being a hands-on leader is much more rewarding than being a traditional manager. Making the lean turnaround will force you in this direction, so go with it. You will be glad that you did.