Dear Gemba Coach,
Our facility is being rated on a “lean maturity” audit. We’re being audited on five levels on fifteen topics, each having multiple sub-topics. I feel that if we actually worked on all these items, the plant would just stop working. Am I missing anything?
Unfortunately, probably not. Still, it depends, as audits do make lean sense in certain circumstances. I’ll come back to further down. However, if your company is anything like many of those I know, these audits are indeed complete nonsense. Worse, as you suspect, if execs take them seriously, they can be seriously counterproductive and damageable to the plant.
First, where do these lean maturity audits come from? I’m not sure who started this, but I’ve been seeing this sort of thing ever since the lean word was coined. Managing-by-objectives is basically about (1) establishing goals, (2) establishing plans to reach these goals and (3) making sure plans are carried out and goals are reached. Nothing outrageous so far, except, of course that reality exists and reality resists. So, when goals are not met, leadership creates new jobs in order to make sure the plans are followed. This, in turn, tends to generate new goals and new plans, and requires more control and so on.
For instance, say your plant has poor quality results and that quality actions are not paying off as hoped for. It is very tempting to create a Total Quality department that will make sure every quality procedure is followed to the letter. This will (1) improve quality short term – as Is get dotted and Ts get crossed and (2) stop any further possibility of quality improvement. By burdening the process with all quality procedures, it becomes very difficult to figure out what exactly was going wrong and identify the real critical-to-quality parameters.
Furthermore, quality is customer specific. The head of the new Total Quality department is there to have a performing Quality Control system, not to care for customers. Chances are he will be very resistant to the idea that different customers have different preferences in terms of quality (which would be a huge challenge to his job as opposed to rigorously applying all procedures all the time). As a result, for a small quality improvement, we have now burdened the plant with additional costs and limited its scope for growth. This plant will not progress beyond this plant, and will in all likelihood tire of the rigor soon enough and slip back to where it was with the added costs firmly set in.
Give Up on Assessment?
Lean is far worse than quality in this respect because it has so many dimensions. Should lean maturity be about leadership clarity? Or about 5S rigor? How about problem solving proficiency? Or reaction to problems? And so on. We’re not dealing with one thing here, but, as you’ve said, ten, fifteen, twenty “core” aspects of lean. In this sense, lean is the wet dream of any systems artist – they’ll come up with the best possible evaluations schemes and win PowerPoint presentation prizes.
There are structural reasons lean doesn’t measure well on any grid:
- Lean is about improvement: The sure test of lean is that the goal post has changed. There is no reason to think goal posts will changed in a predetermined way. The whole point of lean is getting the company to face its challenges and to balance care for today with care for tomorrow. Maturity, such as it is, is in the capacity of recognizing, acknowledging and facing one’s own challenges – so how could any external auditor have any sensible opinions about that?
- Lean is a system: To perform the various elements of lean have to work together. Perfect flow without jidoka is unlikely. Jidoka without pull also. But could be possible as well. As in any system the link that matters most is the weakest at any given time. Consequently, lean progress is more one of “punctuated equilibrium” than an action plan to roll out. Lean breakthrough on any single one of the lean principles changes how all the other work, and thus changes the problem.
- Kaizen is customer specific and operator centric: Two cells in the same plant could well has improved well and reached apparently opposite solutions. Senseis don’t say it depends to frustrate you, but it really depends. No evaluation audit can ever capture that.
Should we give up any assessment effort then? No, of course not. Performance can always be assessed, and benchmarked. For instance, when practicing lean at division level, all sites are evaluated real time (or as real time as can be, which is usually monthly) on basics such as:
- HR development
- New project introduction
- And so on,
But this, again, will depend. For instance, in service activities, quality in terms of complaints hardly captures either churn (the ratio of lost customers to total number of customers) or Net Promoter Score, so the list of performance measures will vary according to what the site is doing. But performance can, and should, be measured.
Sites can be compared on their performance ranking as well, but what we’re really looking for is progress. For instance, we’ll ask a site that has had no lost time accidents last year to start measuring near misses. A site with 99% OTD performance will start measuring missed deliveries per million (99,5% on time delivery is 5000 MPM). As a result, on a chart benchmarking several sites, a site can be good in terms of results, but “red” (poor) in terms of progress.
“Maturity” in gemba terms, has to do with the ability to self-reflect and develop this in others. If push comes to shove, my criteria of maturity (so far) would be:
- Level 1: we’re so good at this, look we’ve done all these great things!
- Level 2: we’re overall okay but have got some specific issues here and there
- Level 3: we’re doing well at some things, but are really poor at others, some of them we don’t really understand
- Level 4: we’re doing well at some things but have identified some huge, messy, dicey areas we need to be good at and we’re trying very hard but have only just started
- Level 5: we have some big challenges we don’t fully understand, but we’re confident that if we all work together people will come up with innovative ways to address these
Maturity has to do with the ability to see one’s own strength and weaknesses, build on one’s strengths and address one’s weaknesses. Having an andon chord in place doesn’t do any good if people are reluctant to pull it for fear that it will reveal problems (it would get a good mark on the audit sheet though).
Why do people spend so much energy in such silly endeavors? Ultimately, I suspect that we’ve all bought into Taylor’s mechanistic view of the world. There is a platonic “perfect” process we seek, and all should be made to ascribe to it. Not surprisingly, some people resist this idea thinking that human beings should be free from any form of process at all (which is means remaining in the Taylorist paradigm, but fighting it). Toyota taught us that there is no perfect process, and there never will be.
If I look back and remember what we were taught by the old time senseis when working on problems, I’d say that lean is neither mechanistic nor anti-mechanistic (I mean, the discipline of standardized work is real), but organistic if there is such a word. A new plant grows from and older plant, itself the daughter of a mother. A coach is taught by a mentor, who also has or had a sensei. A technique is evolved from another. Indeed, Toyota Motor Company grew out of making automated looms. The underlying vision is that leaves are born by branches growing out of trunks drawing on deep roots. Everything has a developmental history.
If I may be fanciful here, kaizen is about cell evolution: replication with mutation. The speed of kaizen is the speed at which every cell renews itself, just as the frequency of parts train is like the blood pumping through the plant’s system. An organism is neither mechanistic nor random, it is organizes organically. I am in no way suggesting that any organization is a living organism, just that the metaphor, the image for the organization is one of a natural cycles. As a point in case, Akio Toyoda’s 2008 vision was about drawing cycles of industry closer to cycles of nature.
In that sense, maturity would be about growing from a new born leaf to a thickening branch, to a deepening tree. Maturity would be about your chain of sensei and, at some point, your chain of deshis and where your tradition fits in with other lean traditions. I doubt any one will make an audit sheet out of that!