Why Is Lean So Damn Hard?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

The quick answer is…it’s not.

It’s getting operators to put their tools back on a shadow board.  It’s getting supervisors and managers to regularly walk around the plant floor.  That’s not all of it, of course, but it’s pretty close.

So, why isn’t every manufacturing operation in the nation “lean”?

I don’t have a clear answer to the question.  As with the examples above, any lean implementation is basically just changing a bunch of behaviors.  Of course, the same is true regarding my efforts to lose 25 pounds…I just need to change certain behaviors around consuming too many simple carbs.  But just as every manufacturing operation isn’t lean, I and many of my fellow males aren’t skinny.  It should be easy but it’s not.

One thing is clear to me though…the real problem is that leadership is reluctant to change its own behavior.  Leadership installs the shadow board, then blames the operators for not using it.  Leadership writes up work instructions and standard procedures, then blames operators for not following them.  Leadership announces an “open door policy” then blames employees for not bringing it new ideas.

Forget “Efficiency”! Think “Density of Value Transfer”!

I don’t read many books on lean.  Most of them are pretty boring, truth be told.

That said, I’ve had one on my “To Read” pile that was recommended by a client.  It’s been there for several months, so I decided to take a look…mostly just to get it off the pile.

As it turns out, the book (This Is Lean; Niklas Modig and Par Ahlstrom, 2018) has turned out to be  interesting.  The fact that it quickly tells readers to forget about efficiency and to focus on flow caught my attention.  I’ve been preaching this same message for years.

A new idea (new to me, at any rate) that really piqued my interest was the concept of “density of value transfer”.   The density of value transfer gets at the value added time in a process compared to the overall process time.  If I call for a doctor appointment, have to wait for a call back to nail a day and time down, then wait for an hour before the doctor sees me, the density of value transfer is low.  If, on the other hand, I’m able to make the appointment during my first call, then wait just fifteen minutes to see the doctor, the density of value transfer is higher.

My example gets at what I like about the concept…it’s easy to talk about in contexts other than manufacturing.  It gets easier to describe how lean thinking applies to services in general.  We can talk about the value transfer density in just about any non-manufacturing process and it makes sense, from catching a plane, to getting one’s car prepared, to responding to a request for a proposal.

The authors get into another aspect that I like about the idea…it replaces a focus on “efficiency”.  If the doctor is “efficient” once she sees me, that doesn’t necessarily do much for value transfer density.  (In this example, it might even hinder it if I feel the doc is placing more emphasis on “efficiency” than she is on treating me respectfully.)

It also decreases attention to “speed” as a euphemism for “efficiency”…the doctor above can shorten my visit (make it faster) but that doesn’t improve value transfer density.

I also like that it removes the word “waste” from the discussion.  Rather than asking, “Is this time being wasted?”  (No one likes to admit to waste.), we’re asking, “Is this time spent on transferring value or not?”

There were a couple of other things I liked about the book, which I’ll get into in future posts.  So, stay tuned!

Process Mapping and Culture Change

First, it’s amazing how quickly time can fly between blog posts.  I would have bet my last one was no more than three weeks ago.

I just finished a gig that involved a facilitating three process mapping teams.

Here’s how that got carried out:

  1. Leadership picked three core strategic processes.
  2. Three process mapping teams (PMT’s) were launched.
  3. The PMT’s developed a project charter, a current state map of the process they were to target, an analysis of the variances of the current state map, and recommendations for improving the process.
  4. The PMT’s reviewed the recommendations with leadership.
  5. Leadership approved the recommendations.
  6. Three Process Improvement Teams (PIT’s) were formed to turn the recommendations into action plans.

There are stories to be told about each of those steps but I want to talk about #3.  That’s where all the action takes place that holds the potential for culture change.

How does culture change happen?

And what, exactly, is it that “happens there” that serves as the source for this culture change?  In a word…conversation.    In two words…facilitated conversation.  In…several words…facilitated conversation among members of a team with a mutual goal.

The conversation:

  • Generates ideas and discussion of those ideas.
  • Highlights disagreements and prompts discussion of those disagreements.
  • Exchanges information and transfers knowledge.
  • Provides opportunities to practice team-based decision-making and problem solving.

Why don’t these things happen in everyday meetings?

Don’t these things happen in the every day meetings that employees take part in?  In my own experience, the answer is no.  Why this is so is probably worth another blog post…if not an entire book.  In general, the guardrails are just too tight in those routine meetings.  The topics are narrow, the roles of team members are set in stone, everyone knows what he or she is allowed and expected to say and not to say.  The meetings take place well within the parameters of the existing culture.

Boxes and arrows = Culture change

The same simply isn’t true of process mapping meetings.  One reason is that too many organizations simply haven’t engaged in mapping their core strategic processes.  It’s a novel activity that leads to new ways of talking to each other and fresh insights as to why things are the way they are in the organization.  Repeated enough times (e.g., lots of process mapping teams and process improvement teams), these new ways of talking and  the continual development of fresh insights become commonplace.  The organization becomes more agile, more responsive, more able to gather and analyze data and information.  That, in turn, leads to better decision making, planning, problem solving, management of agreement, and collaboration.

So, yeah…boxes and arrows can lead to real culture change in your company.

“Work Intensification” Isn’t Lean

A few weeks ago, I posted about an article,  written by someone who referred to himself as a Marxist.  That article was a critique of lean.  It emphasized the point that lean was mostly about “work intensification” that was unsafe and unhealthy for workers.  I was a bit puzzled by that critique;  I’ve always told clients that lean leads to a calmer, less intense work environment.  I couldn’t figure out whence the accusation of making work more intense came from.

I’ve been reading a book, Just Another Car Factory?, about the lean initiatives at a General Motors/Suzuki auto assembly plant in Canada.  The book reports on a study that focuses on the impact of the lean efforts on the workers themselves more than it is on the operating processes of the plant.  It’s a well-referenced book that doesn’t seem to have a strident agenda.  It does a good job of presenting “just the facts”.

The plant sought to emulate the Toyota Production System (TPS).  TPS puts a great deal of emphasis on controlling process variability through work and task standardization.  In addition, it fosters a fierce attention to identifying and getting rid of “waste”.  This hyper-attention to waste seems to result in a continual shaving of seconds of “breathing time” (my words) from each minute of work.  Workers complained of being overburdened.  Further, the pace and nature of the work led to high incidence of ergonomic injuries.

All to say, I see now where people can get the idea that lean is bad for workers.

I’ve never worked in or consulted for an auto plant.  The only “assembly” operation I’ve worked with was the maker of a popular blender, where workers performed their tasks, then passed the partially completed item down the table to the next assembler.  The last employee on the line put the blender and an instruction manual into a box and the blender was ready to ship.  The workers, rather than “the line”, set the pace.

Most of the places I’ve worked were paced by the workers themselves.  In none of these cases did I think that my job was to get them to be more “efficient” by getting a few seconds of additional work out of them.  In fact, I viewed my role as one of making their jobs easier and less frustrating.  The “waste” embedded in operators’ time isn’t due to laziness or negligence.  It’s due to high process variability.

Let me say that again…far and away, the largest source of waste in any manufacturing organization is process variability.  

About twenty years ago, I had a client that extruded PVC conduit and pipe.  A team at the client’s plant in Florida sought to reduce scrap.  Digging into the metrics, the team couldn’t see a pattern as to which causes of scrap were most prevalent.  The Pareto chart of causes was flat (or nearly so).  A scrap cause that was prevalent one month would be nearly gone the next month but no changes in process had occurred (that we could identify).  Somewhat frustrated, I suggested that the team “go back to basics” and look for standard that weren’t in place or weren’t being adhered to.  Our first step was to walk each extrusion line, taking note of any “out of standard” condition with respect to the machinery and equipment.  

We found that the machinery and equipment provided a “target rich field” for conditions that were out of standard.  In fact, it was all pretty much held together with bailing wire, vise grips, and C-clamps.  (I run into this same condition almost everywhere I go.)  Individually, each vise grip or C-clamp seems to be a small thing.  Collectively, though, they create vibration, slippage, a continual need to monitor, and a variety of other conditions that make it difficult for operators to make a good product.  Collectively, these small sources of variation add up to what amounts to “work intensification” for many operators.  They are continually having to watch, adjust, correct for, and solve problems that shouldn’t be occurring in the first place.  Remove these sources of variation and operators’ jobs get easier even as quality and throughput improve.  No “work intensification” is needed.

“But,” you might ask, “isn’t there opportunity in finding waste in how operators and associates use their time?”  Yes…but all that opportunity lies in the fact that those operators and employees are forced to address and manage process variability.  Focus on how to get a few more seconds of work out of operators who are already burdened with fighting fires in unsafe conditions will just lead to high turnover.  Focus on getting operators to help you identify sources of process variation, no matter how seemingly small, and you’ll create a culture in which quality, throughput, and employee retention are high.

Don’t Say “Efficiency”

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

I once worked for an organization that provided training and consulting to businesses and non-profits here in Northeast Ohio.  Our primary “product” was labor-management cooperation initiatives, which took many forms: lean manufacturing,  Total Quality Management, quality circles, even ISO 9000.  Oddly, the president of the organization didn’t know much about any of these concepts.  He had been a quality manager at a local manufacturing firm and the board figured he must know something about labor-management cooperation.  (Yeah, I don’t get the connection either.)

He and I would have these discussions during which he’d tell me that I needed to quit using the word “culture” and use the term “efficiency” more often.  “Managers don’t understand ‘culture’ but they understand ‘efficiency'”, he’d argue.  I would agree that managers didn’t understand “culture”.  I’d go on to say that they didn’t understand “efficiency” either.  But, they’re employees had a clear idea as to what managers meant when they used the word.  And they didn’t see it as good for them.

My point was (and remains today) that managers use the word “efficiency” as a euphemism to mean “We want more of the stuff we like without you asking for more of the stuff you like” when talking with employees.  When managers talk about “improving efficiency”, employees never (NEVER) imagine that they’re going to hear anything that will be good for them.  I’m sure many of you reading this have heard your own managers talk about “efficiency”.  Did you, for a moment, imagine that what those managers had in mind was more investment in learning experiences  and more autonomy for you?  (If so, good for you…you had one of those rare, very enlightened bosses who really understood how to optimize the performance of a work team. )

“But don’t employees use that word, too?”  They sure do…sometimes.  But they use it as a synonym for “work together better” or something like that.  You can bet that they don’t mean “we’ll work harder and faster for the same or even less consideration”…which, too often, is what their bosses have in mind even if they don’t want to say it out loud.

So, don’t say “efficiency”.  It doesn’t send the message that you think it does.  In future posts, I’ll tell you what you should say instead.



Karl Marx and Lean Production

I stumbled across this article in my Google Alerts feed.  (If you’re not familiar with Google Alerts, I recommend that you look into it.  Essentially, you tell Google Alerts what topics you’re interested in, then Google scoops up articles on those topics and sends you a digest with links on a frequency that you choose.  I get it weekly.)  Take a few minutes to read it over.

I admit that I have a bit of regard for some Marxist arguments and points of view.  Not so much the “workers revolt and take over the system and everyone will live happily every after” point.  That one hasn’t worked out so well for the societies that tried it.  But some of Marx’s other points of view and predictions have had merit.  (Here’s an article that goes over some of those points more eloquently than I can.)

So when I saw this article critiquing lean production from the Marxist point of view, I was intrigued.  Cutting to the chase, the author doesn’t like lean.  But here’s the thing:  Most of what he thinks he doesn’t like about lean just isn’t so.  Here’s another thing:  Most of  what the author is wrong about, managers who think that they’re “in favor of lean” are also wrong about.  So…Marxists don’t like lean and capitalists (most of them, anyway) purport to like lean but they’re all pointing to the same wrong reasons for their positions.  Got it?

Let me pull some examples from the article to illustrate what I mean.  Here’s the second sentence of the article:  “It is a production system that bolsters the cost-reduction capacities of capitalist employers through an obsessive and competitive regime of intensifying work.”
That sentence is simply wrong.  As in, not true.  As in, completely and utterly in error.  As in, altogether full of shit.

But…it’s a definition that most hard-right capitalists wouldn’t have much argument with.  Lean messaging has always focused on cost reduction.  When managers ask for evidence that lean works, first and foremost, they are interested in evidence of cost savings.  When lean practitioners want to provide evidence of the value of lean, they point to cost savings.

So, Marxists complain that lean is all about cost reduction.  Capitalists ask, “So what’s the problem with that?”  Wise lean practitioners say:  “You’re both wrong.  The only goal of lean is to figure out how to provide more value to the customer.  Period.  Any organization who embarks on a lean effort holding cost reduction as the primary goal is very likely to fail.”

And that “work intensification” thing?  Altogether wrong.  I tell my clients that, when lean has been applied and is working the way it should, the workplace is much calmer and relaxed.  “Work intensification” doesn’t sound like “calm and relaxed” at all, does it?  But most hard-right capitalists, though they might choose different words (like, “work more efficiently”) probably don’t have a problem with a vision of their workers scurrying about the plant floor looking busy as all heck, right?

There is no work intensification in lean.  There is no “scurrying” or “working more efficiently” in lean.  There is only calm as the flow of work becomes more and more consistent and predictable.

Here’s another line from the article:  “[Lean] encourages workers to compete against one another…”  Utterly false.  But capitalists, too,  believe that “a bit of friendly competition” is good for the organization.  How else to explain “Employee of the Month” awards given to just twelve employees each year?  Lean seeks to remove competition and replace it with collaboration and coordination.

In the same sentence the author claims that lean “increases [workers’] dependence on employers”.  Implemented correctly, lean increases the autonomy of workers.  Again, though, most managers going into lean aren’t thinking about how to increase worker autonomy.  They believe that doing so would reduce their own control and authority.  They like the “tools” part of the “tools and results” lean message because it suggests that lean is all about getting workers to change their behaviors while leaders get to continue behaving the way they always have.  For those managers, it’s not about “worker autonomy”, which would mean that workers are making decisions and solving problems that currently are the domain of managers.  It’s about finally getting those darned workers to do what they should have been doing all along.

All to say, that too many capitalists and at least one Marxist don’t actually have much of a clue as to what lean really is.

Lean Messaging…It Ain’t What It Used To Be

Actually, it never was.

I had an interesting experience recently that involved the manner in which lean has been defined, described, taught, and talked about for these past 30 years or so.  I was asked to take part in something of a discussion group that would toss around ideas as to how lean and the way it’s presented to managers could be “re-imagined”.  I was very much up for the project.  During our first virtual get-together, we divided into four topic groups:  Messaging, Deployment, Site Visits (I never quite understood that one) and…something else that escapes me at the moment.  I chose the Messaging group; in fact, I volunteered to lead it, which meant taking responsibility for pulling my team members together virtually on a regular basis to discuss how messaging about lean principles and methods has or has not been effective.  I was looking forward to getting the chance to exchange thoughts with other practitioners.

Let me take a step back to go over my own view of “lean messaging” as it’s been practiced for the past few decades:  with a few exceptions, it sucks.  The literature on lean (for the most part, IMHO) is boring, jejune, pedantic, and largely free of merit.  (I’ve expressed my views in several of my Industry Week articles, which I’ll link to below.)  There are, of course, no small number of speakers, teachers, and practitioners who are worth listening to.  But too much of what we all hear and read speaks to lean tactics and tools with promises of “greater efficiency” and “reduced wastes (i.e. “costs”).  As a result, managers hire people like to help “their people” implement a “set of tools” and expect “cost savings”.  And they fail.  Over and over again.

I used to work for a guy that got impatient with me whenever I spoke about the organization’s culture and how it supports or hinders lean.

“Managers don’t want to hear about ‘culture’,” he’d tell me.

“Correction,” I’d reply, “Managers who are dumb shits don’t want to hear about culture.”

He was right, of course.  Too many managers want to know how much sin they can commit and still get to heaven.  That is, they’ve heard things that lead them to believe that lean provides a straightforward path to productivity and all that’s needed is a “sensei” and a few “kaizen blitzes”.

All to say, I was eager to find out if my own cynical view of  the “lean message” was mine alone or if others felt the same way.

It turned out that others felt the same way.  I was, frankly, kind of shocked at the extent to which the few of us that met with some regularity seemed to be on the same page with respect to the inadequacy of lean messaging.  We were all of a mind that:

  • Lean is all about culture change. If managers are uncomfortable talking about culture change, there’s no other way to talk with them about lean.
  • Culture change is about behavior change.  The first people who need to change their behaviors are leaders.  Telling others that they are “committed” to the lean initiative isn’t really behavior change.
  • Trying to get “better efficiency”, “more productivity”, “less waste” and “lower costs” is pretty much the road to lean failure.  If these goals are paramount for leaders, it’s not worth talking to them about lean.
  • The tools matter but not that much.

    So far, so good, right?  We have a small group of practitioners who are on the same page with respect to the problem at hand.  We can turn our focus to how to change the messaging!  Well, I guess the folks who pulled us all together in the first place got wind of our anarchical discussions and showed up at our last meeting.  It was soon clear that their interest wasn’t so much in the development of “different and effective messaging” as it was in the development of “attractive messaging”.  My colleagues allowed as how “attractive messaging” was directly responsible for most lean failures.  The next thing you know I’m practically shouting at the folks who had pulled us together, team members are leaving the meeting rapidly and suddenly, and the whole effort comes to a crashing halt.

I’m going to try to stay in touch with my fellow team members…we had gotten some good discussions going.  I’m unhappy that things have ended this way.  Oh, well.  Maybe they, like my old boss, have a point…calling  managers who don’t want to talk about their organization’s culture “dumb shits” might not be the best approach.  I guess I just can’t help myself.



Is It Wrong that I Refer to Managers as “Dumbasses”?

I think that I’ve mentioned that I teach in the B-school at nearby Kent State University.  In the course catalogue, the course is referred to as “Individual and Group Behavior in Organizations”.  I call it “Organizational Behavior” (and so does the rest of the world.)  During the first class of each semester, I tell my students,  “The world is full of dumbass managers…I don’t want you to be one of them.”

OK, so I posted that in a comment on LinkedIn recently…and got some pushback:

In 23 years of full-time teaching, I never described managers using an ad hominem attack. I simply ask my students to lead in ways that better than how they have been led.

So…am I wrong to make a generalization about “dumbass managers”?

In part…yes, of course, I’m wrong.  As the old saying goes, “No generalization is worth a damn, including this one.”

My larger point is that too many managers are not up to the job.  We can argue whether my language is appropriate or not, but to focus on that is to miss the point.  Evidence supports the argument that the “Great Resignation” is caused primarily by toxic corporate cultures.  Such cultures aren’t “accidents” or “acts of God”.  They are created by managers who are ignorant, careless, negligent, and/or just don’t give a damn.  As a former colleague of mine once said, “A fish stinks from the head”.  If the place smells rotten, look to leadership for the source of the stink.

And here’s the thing…creating a strong, positive culture isn’t that difficult.  It’s not brain surgery, at least.  Don’t get me wrong….it takes patience, perseverance, and discipline.  But there’s no “secret sauce” to it that some organizations have figured out.  It may not be easy, but it IS straightforward.

Here’s the second thing…there is a wealth of data that confirms that a strong, positive culture provides superior performance just about any way you want to measure it.  Stock price, revenues, margin, customer satisfaction…they’re all directly correlated to culture.  When the culture gets better, so do those measures.

So…creating a strong, positive culture is straightforward and it provides measurable benefits.  And yet weak, toxic cultures seem to be widespread, if not prevalent.  There must be a lot of dumbass managers out there.

Why Is Takt Time So Confusing?

First, everything I’ve read about blogging says that bloggers aren’t to point out (apologize for) long periods between blog posts.  “Just start posting again and forgo the mea culpas,” the experts tell me.  But….two years between posts?  Who does that?

I was recently reading some typically boring article on lean that, like so many others, harped on the importance of takt time.  Now, I’m not one to deride the idea of takt time, especially given that many others seem to find it useful.  (Or I guess they do….else why does it continue to show up in the literature so often?)  It’s just that pretty much everything I’ve ever read provides the same tired definition without really explaining what it means.  

Here’s an example of that  tired definition  (I picked this one pretty much at random…I just web searched on “takt time definition and went to the first one I saw):

“Takt time is the rate at which you need to complete a product to meet customer demand. For example, if you receive a new product order every 4 hours, your team needs to finish a product in 4 hours or less to meet demand.”

First, who gets a “new product order” every four hours? (Given that the first sentence refers to “customer demand”, I assume the author is speaking of new product orders from customers, not production work releases.) Second, in what world is a manufacturer in a position to start on an order that has just been received immediately after the previous one is finished? Mind you, I’m not saying the definition is totally bogus, I’m just saying that it’s confusing.

Here’s the definition in Wikipedia:

“Takt time is a manufacturing term to describe the required product assembly duration that is needed to match the demand. For example, if the customer demand is 10 units per week, then, given a 40-hour workweek and steady flow through the production line, the average duration between production starts should be 4 hours, ideally.”

Once again, we’re left to figure out what to do if we don’t get new product orders every four hours. Or what to do if customer orders come in willy-nilly in a wide variety of quantities and characteristics.

Some books and articles provide a formula for takt time as if customer demand were constant across time and not something that changed moment by moment.

Once again, I’m not saying that the definition is wrong, I’m just saying that it’s not very helpful. No client I’ve ever worked for has the steady, predictable flow of customer orders that takt time definitions always seem to refer to.

We’d be better off if practitioners were more forthcoming about the underlying purpose of takt time (assuming that they actually know it): smooth, predictable flow of material through the manufacturing process. It wouldn’t be difficult to get workers to brainstorm, for example, those things that prevent smooth flow: downtime, scrap, errors, problems with material, tooling, machinery, and so on. It would be easier (and better) to get operators talking about how to reduce or eliminate those things than it would be to try to teach takt time. So let’s do that.