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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Lean Is Not For Every One

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: vendredi, juin 4, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Rather than think about how to convince others to be lean, let’s try a different thought experiment: what does it take to be a lean leader? First, you need someone who has reached a senior position and is still committed to self-improvement and learning, and be willing to learn about the lean principles in depth. Secondly, this person must be ready to commit to going to the gemba at least twice a week. Thirdly, they must profoundly believe that if they train their people better and empower them to solve their own problems (and help them doing so), they can trust people to come up with better processes, and in turn they have to have faith that improving processes that way (rather than implementing “better” processes purchased or copied from outside) will deliver superior performance – did you note the double act of faith? Finally, they need to be committed to work with a sensei on the gemba regularly enough to keep the whole lean thing moving in the right direction (finding an sensei, getting along, keeping to a rhythm of visits, etc.).

It’s not impossible, you meet some, but it does sound daunting, doesn’t it? In my experience the senior managers who do lean for real already had most of the intuitions around better processes delivers better results and working with people and so on, and find in lean the discipline and tools they need to instrument their vision, build it as an organizational system and so share it amongst their employees. To these few managers, lean is a boon because it enables them to deploy their fundamental work attitudes (process improvement and people involvement) to their entire business, and not surprisingly, it pays back massively.

On the other hand, when one looks at how people become senior execs (how the system selects managers for power positions) there is very little alignment with the qualities needed to take to lean spontaneously. Lean is not for every one, that’s for sure – but why should it be? Lean is a proven method to train one’s organization at becoming better than its competitors – in Orry’s terms, it’s a strategy to compete. Why should every one do it? If management teams have a better idea or can’t be bothered – well, they’ve been picked by their shareholders to do what’s right, so it’s their money. Furthermore, to an executive team, “lean for real” can be extremely disruptive as most people who have through a real lean implementation will testify, because it does seriously alter the balance of powers in the first as well as do what lean does best: surface problems.

To me, the deeper question is not so much to try and convince people to do lean (I don’t think you can), but to clarify as much as we can what lean does, how it works, how to do it and so on, so that the people who would naturally lean towards lean (haha) recognize it as what it is, as opposed to the dreadful “cost killing” name many consultants have given it, and start reading the books.

Looking back at the senior managers I know who do lean for real they have either 1) previously worked with a boss who was passionate about lean, or 2) read all the books before starting projects. Most of all, they were grabbed by this or that story which they could relate to and where they recognized a solution to the concerns of their company. But where are the stories? Where are the cases? I believe this question actually begs another one for us, in the lean writing community: why are they so few cases of successful lean implementation? Are we writing the right stuff?

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