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Art Smalley

Art Smalley: Improvement is usually not simple or easy

By Art Smalley, - Last updated: Friday, January 1, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Tom Ehrenfeld asks an interesting question (link). I like to tell people that there is both an “art” and a “science” to doing lean in a healthy meaningful way that will deliver sustained results. The science part for example is the ability to analyze an operation in detail in terms of time, motion, the work elements, the types of waste involved, and the basic physics of the process (cutting forces for metal removal, welding, etc.) understand root causes and make improvements. The Toyota Production System has lots of simple tools to help people analyze their jobs, spot waste, and then brainstorm ways of improving.

Arguably the science is the easy part of the improvement equation however and I realize that calling it science is a stretch – please take it as a metaphor. As far as the artful side of management Toyota also struggled to get traction during the 1950’s after the initial Taiichi Ohno Line conversions were implemented and needed to be spread out to other areas. This did not happen rapidly and Ohno was frustrated by supervisors and managers who did not “get it”.

Interestingly the union representing employees in Toyota (yes there is a union for workers Toyota in Japan but not like the cross company UAW type in the U.S.) also complained about supervisors and their lack of skill in leading people. Employees too were frustrated about people who bullied them, the degree of conflict involved, and other topics of concern as well.

A partial answer for Toyota starting in 1951 was the roll out of the U.S. Department of Defense Training Within Industry (TWI) Program for supervisors. The basic concept behind TWI was that supervisors leading their work teams could make substantial improvements on their own since they best knew the work. However this requires 2 knowledge components and 3 specific skill sets.

When I worked for Toyota in Japan these were still the standard expectations for supervisors and leaders decades later. The two knowledge components are learned on the job over time. The basics of the three core skills however could be taught in a classroom setting. Three separate ten hour courses existed called Job Instruction, Job Relations, and Job Methods. Each course was very influential and had a specific purpose and skill set that was taught to supervisors. There is no “magic bullet” contained inside the material but it involves the basics of how to properly train people, how to manage points of team conflict, and how to make methods based improvements in your own work. (Link to TWI original documents).

TPS and lean involve a lot more than the simple concepts contained in these old courses. However they area a great way to introduce lean concepts in a friendly way that removes some of the conflict with no jargon or mysterious foreign sounding concepts. Toyota embraced the content and built it into their supervisor development programs for decades. There are other ways of accomplishing the same task but I tell everyone interested these are the simplest ways I know of getting started with this sort of topic.

I think one of the great injustices perpetuated has been the promotion of the concept that “lean is simple and all you need to do is x, y, and z”. Simple does not mean easy and there was nothing all that simple or easy about Toyota’s improvement trajectory from 1950 through recent times. In my opinion change, leadership, improvement and excellence are not trivial topics or answered by cut and paste type of answers. If it was that easy more companies would be succeeding…but they are not and hence Tom Ehrenfeld’s insightful question.

“From a distance, lean looks like such a nice, humanistic improvement approach, one that treats people with respect and generates knowledge from the ground up. That’s all well and good, but the practice of teaching, and doing, lean invariably involves conflict, frustration, and, to be honest, what seems like a fair amount of bullying from superiors to prod their employees to “get it”. Isn’t the reality of doing lean far more frustrating and conflicted than one would think? How do you get people on board in a meaningful way? How do you teach the gospel of respecting people without bullying them in practice?”

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