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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Lean is about facing one’s problems and learning to solve them

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Thursday, December 24, 2009 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Lean management is teaching the right people to solve the right problems the right way. None of this is easy. Senior management must agree to teach, not tell; middle managers must agree to learn. This is not easy and win/win doesn’t necessarily mean nice/nice.

First off, it’s important to note that regardless how tough the managerial debate can become no serious lean practitioner has ever had a cross word for a frontline operator. In fact, many of the harshest discussions with middle-managers are about teaching respect for value-adding operators. The lean premise is that the people who add the value, who do the job, ARE ALWAYS RIGHT. Their points are always valid, even though we often do not know how to respond or resolve the problem. The onus of proof is on management, and of finding a solution on management.

Lean practices evolved largely out of the cornerstone deal Toyota made with its employees and unions after near bankruptcy, layoffs and strike in the early 1950s: the company will strive to offer a secure working environment – both physically and mentally – and employees will strive to constantly improve productivity. Over the years this foundation stone has evolved into the two pillars of the Toyota Way: continuous improvement and respect for people.

Respect for people means that as a manager, I am responsible for the success of every one of my subordinates. This means creating a secure environment where potential issues are visualized and explored through asking why? So that smarter solutions are found, and where problems are exposed rather than hidden, with no blame attached: the key here is being tough on the problem, not the person (not easy as many people take disagreement with their ideas as rejection). In particular it implies that management must take seriously every problem exposed by subordinates, and make earnest efforts to resolve them (even through not all problems get solved and many compromises must be made). If I’m responsible for my people’s success I must also empower and develop them in teaching them how to solve their own problems.

With TPS, Toyota has codified a number of learning techniques that are generic self-study activities to improve one’s own process. Visualizing a production process with pull systems and reducing inventories to “lower the water in the river to reveal the rocks” is a typical instance of creating a learning environment in the day-to-day job. Similarly, pulling an andon chord to check whether the parts fit correctly or not throughout the working day is about learning as we do the job. So lean systems show you how to do kaizen. What no lean system can bring is the willingness to do kaizen every day, and putting kaizen first and doing the day-to-day job later.

Lean should never be tough on employees at the coalface (if it is, there is something seriously wrong and you’re probably looking at taylorism renamed as “lean”). Lean is precisely about increasing productivity by reducing the ergonomic burden and mental burden of employees whilst engaging them more in contributing to the design of their own workstations and work processes. So certainly no bullying there.

Lean, however, can be very tough for management and middle-managers. Lean is about facing one’s own problems and resolving them oneself by working with one’s people and colleagues. No more “it’s not my fault but every one else’s.” No more “I’m just a cog in the system, what can I do?” Lean management is about teaching managers to solve problems in a lean way, every day.

But none of us are getting younger as we gain managerial responsibilities and the folds of our brains are set and true learning is hard. Everyone is happy to learn a bit more of what we already know, but having to explore areas where we don’t know and have to learn from scratch can be very difficult for many people, particularly when they’ve been in the job a while. Denial occurs at every stage: first denial that there is a problem, second denial that this problem is caused by one’s own actions, thirdly denial that lean exercises can help to solve the problem, fourthly insecurity at one’s own ability of learning the new tricks of lean to solve the problem, and finally great reluctance to carry it through over many small steps. You can lecture people about swimming all you want but at some point, you’ve got to shove them in the pool.

Respect for people is not about being polite (being polite is a nice to have, but at some point, they’ve got to move.) Respect is about being earnest in efforts to develop them and help them solve their own problems so that they improve their own processes and so that all our jobs are secure because the company is selling more, more profitably and can then take good care of its employees over the long run.

To answer the question specifically, there is no question in lean, ever, to bully or prod or push value-adding employees. The whole ethos of lean is about inverting the pyramid and creating the kind of working environment where those who make the product or deliver the service can do so in the safer, most interesting way. Operators should be in a position to sow parts on their workstation as easily as seeds on a field. They should be in a position to flag any problem they encounter and participate in how the problem can be solved. They shouldn’t have to worry about being laid-off or relocated. They should be able to contribute every day to both the process and the product by their ideas and suggestions, not just their hard work.

Achieving this, however, requires a radical transformation of managerial mindset, attitudes and practice. Some managers are able to learn and happy to do so, others less so – and then it gets tricky. From a psychological perspective, there is an optimal point for managers to be engaged, a trade-off between their competence level and the challenges they face. Continuous improvement involves both harder challenges and constant competence increases. In practice, lean debates are hardly ever difficult with managers who have been practicing lean for years – they understand challenges and will face them without demur or panic. But for managers used to a traditional “do as I say/I’m just a cog in the wheel” environment, the shift is hard and, yes, can be driven harshly by any CEO intent on lean transformation. There is no easy answer here other than to stress that the most highly prized virtue in a manager from a lean perspective is the ability to learn. Managers who’ve gotten their position through other character traits will find lean difficult to adhere to, no question about this.

Can you teach the lean ideal to people without bullying them? One can certainly try and then it all depends whether they are willing to learn. There will always be some element of bullying in getting people to face problems they try to deny, but when the relationship is strong and secure, everyone gets over this quickly as you get down to kaizening the problem and looking for solutions. If, on the other hand, the relationship remains adversarial, pushing further won’t help, and the only thing to do is to look for leadership elsewhere and hope that good examples will either turn “concrete heads” around, or convince them they’ll do better in another company.

If you have practical questions regarding lean implementation, please join me on the Gemba Coach column on lean.org

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