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Art Smalley

Art Smalley: Focus On Delivering Results

By Art Smalley, - Last updated: Saturday, June 5, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I think Tom Ehrenfeld asks an interesting question for us to consider. In its shorter form “How do you convince others to be lean?” I’ll go out on a limb and say that you don’t. Or more specifically at least that I don’t bother trying to. Leaders have to decide for themselves what to do and how to go about doing it to a large extent. Otherwise they are not real leaders in my opinion. Sure they might need some assistance but I have never seen a very successful company of any type that did not have excellent leadership. So much for a non answer from me on that one. But hey it could be worse I could have used the old Buddhist proverb “When the student is ready the master will appear!“.

In the longer form of Tom’s question “How can we convince decision makers that lean is not a program to justify, but a way of doing business to achieve superior performance?” I have a different fundamental opinion on the topic. The Lean movement has been characterized as a set of tools, principles, a system, and even as a business strategy as of late. The truth is that it can be all of those depending upon the situation which is partly why it can be so difficult to grasp and convey at times.

I think where the Lean movement often gets hung up however is in this never ending debate of “what it is” and “how do we get the CEO to lead the charge”.  My take on the matter is slightly different. For starters rather than argue “what is lean” companies should spend their time and energy figuring out “how to improve”. Toyota Motor Corporation started making its most substantial changes first in the machine shops around 1950. The “system” had no name until around 1973 however when the term “Toyota Style Production Methods” was coined. Quickly after a couple more years this became known as the “Toyota Production System“. Today it is more succinctly known as the Toyota Way. So my obtuse point on all this is that if Toyota did not need to call its system anything for 23 years why does anyone need to spend so much time debating what to call it or how to define it in their case? Sure a name helps but beyond a certain point you are not getting much return on all your mental efforts.

Where I instead urge leaders to channel their efforts is in obtaining results that matter for their company. Unless you figure out how to improve value, eliminate waste, reduce cost, improve quality, and all that fun stuff for your situation not much else will matter. That is one of the tasks that a leader must sort out and then make sure the organization is moving in that direction by whatever lean methods he or she employs. By way of analogy I mention to clients that you can put all the fancy name brand golf clubs in your bag that you want. On the scorecard however I only look at the numbers and how closely they add up to par or better.

The other point I like to bring up from Toyota’s history is that Taiichi Ohno the architect of the production system was a mid level manager of the machine shops in his late 30’s when he started his journey. He was not CEO of the company and he never rose higher than VP of manufacturing. This was not a top down revolution inside of Toyota…call it a mid level revolution of sorts out of the machine shops. Sure he had Eiji Toyoda’s backing but Eiji Toyoda was not President and CEO of the company back at that time either. He was head of the transmission shop in Toyota and Ohno was over the engine shops. Ohno did not waste much time debating what to call his system and he continually improved it as he went along. He even commented that he suggested calling it the “Ohno System” until they were sure it was going to work. If it backfired he’d take the blame.

So how did Taiichi Ohno and Toyota succeed? As Michael Balle points out it has a lot to do with leadership. But it took leadership at all levels front line, mid-management, and the executive ranks. If you succeed and deliver big enough results you will get noticed and promoted as Taiichi Ohno continually did over his career. Each step up the ladder brought another segment of production under his control and influence. By the time he retired and moved onto Toyoda Boshoku in the latter part of the 1970’s the Toyota transformation was largely complete at least in production. Other unsung leaders took up the charge in other key parts of the company.

In the end relating this back to Tom’s extended question I don’t really know that this can be explained to anyone in an intellectual fashion or just on paper. Learning best occurs by doing, failing, learning, and doing again and again until you get it right. Understanding evolves as capability grows which takes time. Realizing that lean is more than just a set of tools and can be an entire “management way” won’t happen for every company over night. If your CEO gets that point already then congratulations for being at the head of the class. If not then I suggest you starting doing your own best Taiichi Ohno imitation and starting leading the charge in your own area of control. Actions and examples speak more loudly than mere words.

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