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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Define Success as Learning, and the Culture Will Follow

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Saturday, June 19, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Culture is largely about how you define success, and the acceptable means to obtain this success. Within lean programs, the issue of failure rarely comes up because we define success as learning, and failure and success are intimately linked in the process. What we do find, is that some people take to it quite naturally, while others adamantly refuse to learn, whatever the consequences.

I was recently on the shop floor in an automotive supplier plant with the operations manager, the plant manager and the area manager. They’d been working with lean for a number of years and had implemented several of the tools, but without much deep thinking. As a result, they had set up a central supermarket for parts, but I showed them that it was far from the machine that produce the parts, and wouldn’t help the operator to feel ownership for his or her production. As there was no kanban pull system, it was impossible to see by standing at the supermarket whether they’d been overproducing or not. All in all, the operators that made the parts had no way to either react or reflect on the basis of what they saw at the supermarket, which was, in any case, on the other side of a wall.

As we walked back towards the machining cells themselves, I showed them they had implemented the production analysis boards without the analysis: they had the classic three columns: target, actual and, instead of a “comments” column to ask the operator why the hourly target has not been achieved, they had instead a narrow column with “smileys” (target achieved) or “frownies” (target missed). I may not have been very politic in my comments at one cell where every hour was a frownie because I suggested their system was cruel: to the operator, the past hour was a failure, the current hour was a failure, and the next hour was also likely to be a failure but no one asked him what he through about it. The whole point of Production Analysis Board is, well, analysis, and creating a space for then operator to give their opinions of what specific reasons stopped them from reaching the target, as a basis for discussion with the supervisor.

I had no intent to blame them for any of this – indeed I commended them on their willingness to try things, and I felt I was discussing with them lean technique: is what we’ve implemented doing what we think it should do, which is what I do every day on the gemba. But at that moment, the area manager simply walked off in a huff muttering something and left the operations manager, the plant manager and myself looking at each other awkwardly.

Lean results are obtained by improving processes in a specific way: not by purchasing better processes and implementing them, but by teaching every person in the process to better understand their work, to see the different kind of mudas they generate, and to think more deeply about the fundamentals of the technical process by root cause problem solving. As you do this over time, people’s individual skills and deep knowledge increase, and so they run their processes better, and deliver better results – no big surprises.

But each person in the process has to accept that they need to learn. To work with lean, they’re not expected to just “do the job” but to learn to do it better and better. When management has the right attitude, there rarely are issues because every one understands one just tries and tries until we get the idea right – that is a normal part of the process. But, suddenly if one person outright refuses to play the game, and creates a fuss, often claiming undue pressure – in other words, asserts strongly that no one can ask them more than just doing their job correctly – then all sorts of open ended issues can occur. In one unfortunate case I’ve seen a supervisor completely halt the lean transformation process with the help of the company’s HR manager, who, rather than take the position that everyone is expected to learn, defended the fact that asking people to learn in their jobs was creating unacceptable stress.

Clearly, adult learning is not always easy – in Toyota as anywhere else. A few years ago, Mr. Hayashi, one of Toyota’s leading lean senseis had these recollections about his time working for Taiichi Ohno: “I was really afraid of Mr. Ohno when I was young. But I think he was developing thinking people. He never gave us the answer. When he gave us an assignment, he would just stand by and watch us fail, even if he knew the answer.

Taiichi Ohno would give his subordinates nearly impossible challenges. But from the moment he gave these challenges, Ohno himself would be thinking about the solution, so he followed up. Hayashi says that Ohno always came to see for himself the next day. When the solution was inadequate Ohno would yell “What is this?!” but this helped people recognize where their perspective had been inadequate. According to Hayashi, “Mr. Ohno scolded us after first making us really think and struggle, and this helped us to come to a deeper understanding.”

Adult learning is about confronting different positions on the same situation. It’s a difficult process to maintain, and easy to stop: all one has to do is throw a wobbly and slam the door. So the issue is not so much how does one create a culture that tolerates failure, but how one picks managers for their learning abilities and how one creates an environment where “problems first” and “not guilty” coexist: nothing is ever perfect, and that’s ok. Just try and test, and try and test again.

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