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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: JOB = WORK + KAIZEN

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Thursday, October 14, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Bob Woods, in The Gold Mine, argues that he’d change every manager right away for someone better – if he could. Since that’s hardly practical, he then says you’ve got to start developing those you’ve got. And then the chances are that, in a short time, they’ll become better than anyone you’ll find on the job market.

It’s certainly is an interesting conundrum, but which also hinges on another: how good are we at developing people in lean? One common temptation is to try and teach the whole lean shebang: the TPS, the 14 principles, the toolbox and so on. For adults, this has the drawback of requiring a large mental investment without immediate payback – it’s not particularly relevant to their job and, as I can see when teaching MBA-level courses, the translation from auto industry to other situations is hard to do for beginners.

Although a lean “boot camp” is often the first step in teaching lean to coworkers, it often generates more heat than light and is quite wasteful of energy for the few aha!s it produces;

Some of the best lean transformations I’ve been part of have never mentioned the word “lean” or explained much about it. True, the CEO or senior exec leading the transformation has usually read all the books and is very well versed in lean theory and tradition, but he or she does not pass it on to their managers. What they do is hang on to the fundamental ideal of lean:


Essentially, they find one kaizen topic for each of their managers to work on, on top of their normal work.

When the CEO, knows their way around lean, there’s a certain magic to this. The CEO know how to work with a sensei to establish 1) clear results they want to get at company or process level 2) identify the learning leverage points (the points we really need to learn to do differently if we want a significant improvement: something has got to really change, if not we’ll get more of what we have) and 3) the typical kaizen method to teach this to colleagues.

For instance, say the CEO has a large range of products and uneven demand (yes, yes, lean does not apply easily),  and he already understand that his delivery performance and financial performance are linked to 1) right first time in final assembly and 2) small batch sizes in machining, he can then start his assembly manager on Red Bin quality workshops, or Standardized Work workshops and start his machining manager on SMED.

Assuming that both managers are willing to make the effort, they’ll probably “get it”: doing one repetitive, practical workshop such as SMED with a strong pressure to reduce batch size will teach the manager something about running his shop differently: it will deliver short term results, it is relevant to his job, and it’s practical and grounded. Once this person has got that part of lean, the CEo can get them to start working on another kaizen angle, and so on.

Managers taught in this way need not know they’re being taught lean. Indeed, few people in Toyota seem to know what TPS is all about – they all know about kaizen however.

This approach of developing managers point by point, teaching typical problems and typical solutions one by one is very powerful, but it has the drawback, obviously, that the top guy needs to be far more advanced in lean than his direct reports. If you’re trying to learn lean with your teams, then things are more complicated and boot camp is probably the best answer.

I’ll respond to the question by another question: are you sure that your managers are resistant to improvement or are they resistant to investing in learning yet another new method (after reengineering, total quality, six sigma, now lean?)? Adults can and will learn. Some even enjoy it. But they tend to learn stuff that is immediately rewarding, relevant to their job and practical. They learn best if you’ve given them step-by-step recipe with clear goals and that they can practice several times in a row. Starting the process with reading entire books is hardly doing that?

One way of getting out of this impossible situation is to trust the sensei. You can go back to your managers and argue that all you expect of them in this lean effort is JOB = WORK + KAIZEN. Make a deal with the sensei so one person is only tackling one improvement project at a time (if the sensei is worth his salt, he already knows that kaizen has to be personal, so it shouldn’t be too hard). You yourself will have to read all the books and figure out what this lean whachamacallit is all about. But maybe you can bring your people along without having to put them through a university degree in lean. Focusing on solving one problem at a time should do it nicely – if they’re the right problems, and they’re solved through repetitive kaizen.

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