Lean Implementation is Lots of Small Things

5S PlanningA colleague and I are helping a couple of local school districts implement continuous improvement in three areas: Facilities Maintenance, Nutrition Services, and Transportation.  (We and they call it a “Lean Implementation”, but it’s more focused on employee involvement and problem solving that on some of the classical lean methods that most manufacturers would be familiar with.)   Yesterday, I was on my way to a meeting of the Transportation Team, when I got a call from the manager letting me know that he would have to postpone the meeting because of some staffing issues.  The team had held a couple of meetings that I hadn’t been able to attend, so he updated me on those.

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Process Mapping: Lessons I’ve Learned

Over the years, I’ve helped a number of clients with process mapping exercises.  Now, process mapping is one of those things you can read about and look up on the interweb and still not get much help when it comes to actually doing it with a team.  (That said, a good book on the topic is “Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart” by Geary Rummler. )  I’ve learned some things that can help you.

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Operations are NOT “Cost Centers”!

One of my constant refrains is “Don’t implement lean as a cost reduction initiative.  You’ll just screw it up.”  Implementing lean as a cost reduction project is a sure fire way to failure but it’s probably the most common foundation for getting started.  I think this comes from the idea that manufacturing operations are “cost centers” rather than “strategic value creation centers”.

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Lean Is Often All About the Smallest Things

I always start any project with a few days of information gathering about the operations so that I’ll know a bit of the culture and local language when I get to the leadership planning steps. The info gathering phase is always enjoyable as I get to know the folks within the client organization and tell them what I have in mind.  During the info gathering I always come across conditions and situations that, on the one hand, are easily addressed but, on the other, I fear that the client will think, “Is that all you’ve got?” when I bring it up.

I had the latter experience a few years ago.  I was strongly encouraging a client to implement workplace organization and visual factory methods in the plant.  The thing was, the plant was reasonably clean and organized but just in the usual “decent housekeeping” way that plants sometimes are.  The managers didn’t refuse to take me up on my suggestions but didn’t seem to have much energy in implementing 5S.  They seemed primarily interested in “cost savings kaizens”.  (They couldn’t tell me what savings had come from past kaizens, or even how “cost savings” were to be measured, but that’s another story.)

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Another Misinformed Article On Lean Manufacturing

I’ve said any number of times that one of the problems with lean is  alleged “experts” who say stuff that just ain’t so. I just ran across an article that crams a lot of “just ain’t so” stuff into a few paragraphs.    Here’s the article:  Next Generation Lean: Why Lean Too Often Requires a Leap of Faith.  (I’m going to quote some of the most egregious statements (and there are a lot of them) so you might want to just stay here.)  Right off the bat, you know the article is likely to be pretty off track…lean NEVER requires a leap of faith. It’s benefits are proven many times over.  But, let’s dig in, anyway, to see what other nonsense we can uncover.

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Measuring Activity vs. Measuring Performance

I like to read the comments under articles that I read online.  I was just checking comments under this very good IndustryWeek article, Next Generation Lean: Lean Processes Need to Continuously Improve.  Down in the comments section, “Lone Star” had this to say:

Flawed implementations occur when companies rollout Lean as a project or program that measures activity such as, number of Kaizen events, 5S audit scores, A3’s completed, Process Maps produced etc.


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Are Some Managers Just Too Dumb To Implement Lean?

I once had a client whose business was very capital intensive.  I asked if I could get measures of machine downtime. The plant manager told me that they didn’t measure downtime. Or scrap (the company had a budget variance figure that it referred to as “scrap”  but no one could tell me what part of the number was bad product and what part was just adjustment for counting errors).

My point is that a management team that doesn’t bother to measure track the most basic measures of operational performance might not have the intellectual wherewithal to implement lean.  Lean methods are straightforward but their successful implementation does require a fundamental desire for and vision of operational excellence.  Effective continual improvement is supported by managers and associates who show an interest in the many variables that affect their work and how those variables might be controlled.  Mind you, one doesn’t have to be an engineer or a wizard in operations research to  successfully implement lean methods.  But one does need to be intellectually curious and have a certain amount of cognitive agility and a sense of appreciative wonder about how processes work. This might be another way of saying, managers have to be pretty smart to implement lean.

A manager who doesn’t bother to track downtime in his capital-intensive shop probably isn’t smart enough to effectively implement lean and, perhaps, never will be.  Nor is a manager who doesn’t track scrap.  Nor is a manager who can’t tell you what the rate of on-time shipments to best customers are.

But can’t managers learn that such data is important and come to have motivation to gather and analyze the appropriate data?  Sure, I suppose so.  Transformation is always possible.  But the odds are against it, in most cases, I think.  Managers who haven’t been smart enough or curious enough to gather the most basic info about their operations during careers that might have lasted decades aren’t likely to suddenly change their ways when a new “Lean Program” comes along.  Not voluntarily, at any rate.

What’s to be done, then, when managers just aren’t smart enough to effectively implement lean?  Well, the plant I mentioned at the outset of this post didn’t really start implementing lean effectively until the plant manager in question left and a new one, a much smarter one, replaced him.  Sometimes you just need to have the right people in the right seats on the bus.

Leadership Commitment Isn’t Enough

Hey, I just got another article posted on Industry Week’s web site!  It rambles a bit, perhaps, but I’m particularly proud of this one.  It addresses my own experience that company leaders often start out honestly committed to a lean initiative but, later, lose energy for it because they never see it as closely integrated with the company’s overall strategy.  Check it out and let me know what you think!