How to Implement Lean Manufacturing – Strategy and Spread the Word: Part 2(b)

Part 2(b)?  Really?  Sheesh.

At any rate, last time we covered two methods for getting the word out when you begin to implement lean manufacturing.  Let’s look at a couple more.

Learning Circles

Learning Circles are on-going small group meetings in which specific elements of lean are discussed.  I’ve usually conducted these around readings in the literature. In particular, I’ve used Daniel Mann’s Creating a Lean Culture as the focus of Learning Circles.

Lean Manufacturing Team
Learning Circles are small group discussions of specific lean concepts and methods.

The meetings aren’t intended for planning activities or initiatives.  Rather, they are a chance for managers and associates to discuss, in more general ways, the concepts and methods of lean manufacturing.

I didn’t always use Learning Circles.  I had a client that was already using them to good effect.  I’ve use them several times since and have found that they are more effective than “classroom” settings for getting managers to discuss how the tools and methods can best be fitted to their own circumstances.  I’ve had far more luck getting companies to get Learning Circles going for their managers than for their hourly associates.  But I’m always hopeful.

Here’s the way I’ve rolled out Learning Circles in the past…first, I get the client to decide whether the Circles will be only for managers and supervisors or for everyone.  (As mentioned, it’s usually the former.)  Then I have the company order a basic lean text for each of the Learning Circle participants.  (Again, I’ve used Daniel Mann’s book and very much like it.  The client where I first say Learning Circles in use, read The Toyota Way but I didn’t think it fit them well given that a fair portion of the concepts didn’t really  apply to them.  They didn’t seem to mind, though.  I haven’t used it yet, but Lonnie Wilson’s How to Implement Lean Manufacturing would be a good book to cover, I would think. )

Participants are divided into Learning Circles (keep them fairly small…no more than ten participants), a schedule for Circle meeting days and times is developed, participants are instructed when and where to show up (and why, of course) and you’re off and running.

Who will lead/facilitate the Circles?  This is a role your consultant or lean director can fill, at least at first.  It’s probably not a bad idea to work toward getting others to lead the discussions in the long run.

How long should each Learning Circle session last?  One client (that one from whom I originally learned the idea) held lunch time meetings with pizza ordered in.  Another held half-hour meetings several times a week with a different set of participants at each meeting.

Day to Day Conversations

That brings me to what’s probably the most powerful and least used of the Spread the Word methods…talking about lean manufacturing in one-on-one conversations, every day.

Conversation makes a lean implementation easier.
Continual conversations will make your lean manufacturing implementation more effective.

My experience is that manufacturers and supervisors have a difficult time starting conversations about work that don’t focus on some immediate circumstance.  I’ve conducted basic supervisory training a number of times over the years.  One of the modules I cover is entitled, “Coaching”…and it’s the material that the attendees have had the most difficult time mastering.  There’s a module on giving feedback on below standard performance; the supervisors tend to get that (once they get past the notion that such feedback need not contain some sort of punishment).  There’s another module on giving feedback for performance that meets or exceeds standards; the supervisors tend to get that (once they buy into the notion that giving feedback for performance that simply meets standards is a worthwhile enterprise).  But Coaching seemed to elude the majority of them.

You see, the Coaching module recommends simply starting up a conversation with an individual operator about his or her work without an agenda other than listening to what the operator says.  It’s conversation for conversation’s sake, only that it’s focused on the work at hand.  For some reason, that Coaching conversation seemed to be very difficult for supervisors and managers.

Nonetheless, supervisors and managers need to engage in the same sorts of conversations as lean concepts and methods are first rolled out.  I’m talking about going up to an operator or technician and asking, “What do you think about all this new lean stuff?  Does it seem to you it will make much of a difference around here?  How?”  Then doing that over and over.

In my own experience,  those sorts of conversations bring up lots of questions, feedback, concerns, ideas and information that enhances my own learning and that of the operator.  Ten minutes of conversation is often more valuable than an hour of sitting in class.

Such conversations are all the more powerful when started by managers and supervisors.  It gives them a chance to communicate their own goals for the lean initiative as well as the opportunity to bounce ideas off the folks who are going to have to implement the program.

How does top leadership reinforce this?  You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s by generating similar conversations with their own reports:  the President starts conversations with the Vice President of Operations who starts conversations with the Plant Manager who starts conversations with the Production Superintendent….well, you get the idea.

How long does everyone have to keep all this up?  Well, those no particular reason why such conversations can’t go on for a long time, maybe forever.  Sure, the content of the conversations will change as the initiative matures but a culture of managers and supervisors who are regularly asking their reports to tell them what they think about…whatever…is a good one to have.