As a lean coach, after you move to a new management assignment, finish a training course, or run several kaizen events, can the team you leave behind build on what you taught them and maintain momentum? Or will they struggle and quickly revert to their previous way of doing things?
This is undoubtedly frustrating for those bitten by the Lean bug. It often leads managers to ask how to enforce compliance to sustain the gains from lean. And it leads skeptics to conclude “lean does not work.” Two related perspectives on lean transformation can help us answer this important question of “what happens next.”
First, lean reverses the separation made by Frederic Taylor between the “experts” and managers (who think and direct) and those who do the work. Going beyond optimizing individual activities to improving the horizontal flow of value creation reveals all the problems currently hidden by buffers between them. Linking a complicated set of activities together into a value stream promises superior performance but also multiplies the probability of problems interrupting the whole system.
Lean goes further to mobilize the knowledge and experience of those who actually do the work. These individuals are best placed to improve their work and respond quickly as problems arise. This is why lean practitioners often think of a value stream as the sum of the problem-solving capabilities of every person along the stream as well as the capabilities of every activity and machine.
Second, scientific thinking (PDCA) lies at the heart of these problem-solving capabilities. But reconfiguring the way we think, and hence how we work together, is only achieved through repeated practice, just like learning to play a musical instrument or to excel at a sport. TWI created the methodology for “learning by doing” that is the basis for Toyota’s approach to developing its people. Using the A3 framework provides the common language for solving problems together. Kata shows us how to build the practice of these skills into our daily work. This emphasis on frequent practice is why lean thinkers place so much emphasis on engaging everyone in kaizen every day.
The true significance of learning to use the scientific approach is revealed by the sensei or teacher asking “So what?” after the team successfully completes a problem solving cycle. While specific results are fine, the real lasting value is the improved capability to solve the next set of problems that occur.
This also reminds us to judge the success of managers and teachers by their ability to create teams that can sustain and improve the business after they leave. All too often these capabilities are destroyed by an incoming manager who seeks to make their mark by setting off in a different direction.
These two perspectives challenge us to rethink the way we intervene in organizations to plant the seeds of lean altogether. They also question the traditional expert-led consulting model.
We can summarize the challenges as follows:
- Lean is about learning through solving the specific problems facing the organization rather than “implementing” standard solutions. How much time do we spend helping team members and managers define the real problems that need solving?
- Capabilities are developed through mentored “learning by doing” activities at the place of work rather than teaching all team members the lean tools in a classroom. How much time do we spend telling people what to do instead of coaching and mentoring them by asking questions?
- These capabilities are used to create stability and to unblock the flow of value creation step by step rather than imposing an automated “solution” or out-sourcing the work. How much do we help the team to gather the facts, try alternative countermeasures, and reflect on what worked and what did not?
- Line management carries the responsibility for developing the capabilities of their subordinates and for removing obstacles to improving the flow of value rather than professional (lean) experts in central staff functions. Are we devoting as much effort to introducing standard work for line managers as we are to developing standardized work on the shop floor?
- Finally, Lean needs to be led by active, hands-on “follow me” leaders asking the right questions and guided by a sensei rather than distant “do it for me” leaders who are only interested in results. Are we working to develop the right kinds of leaders, and how are we encouraging current leaders to, if necessary, change the way they lead?
John Shook of The Lean Enterprise Institute keeps reminding us of the Training Within Industry motto “if the pupil has not learnt, then the teacher has not taught.” This is hard to accept, but so true. We still have to do a better job of explaining the underlying purpose of lean practice and how it leads to sustained and improving performance rather than quick fixes that do not last.
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