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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Waste Elimination Is The Ultimate Development Practice

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Monday, January 10, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Most companies would argue that they’re intent on developing their people, and to do so they invest a substantial part of the budgets in training of all sorts, from technical skills to managerial practices. Mostly, this training is conceived on the university model: an expert specifies the best known way to do something, trainees learn it as well they can and then are tasked to apply it. Because of obvious organizational constraints, training is separated into classroom training with a trainer, and then, hopefully practical application left to the participants. In such training conception, the trainees manager is not particularly interested in making sure application happens and tends to assume the training has been acquired through the classroom process. The manager seldom feels responsible for the successful operationalization of the training. Furthermore, much training tends to be generalist and high-level, and hardly applicable immediately to the job.

Unfortunately, this vision of training fits very poorly with what we now know about adult learning. Adults are different from students in that they 1) already have their own established base of experience, which is often deeply enmeshed with their personality and self-image; 2) they have very busy, often overburdened lives and are unlikely to put a lot of effort in any topic which they can’t apply right away to lighten one of their loads (they’re quite happy to discuss generalities for hours, but that’s not work, it’s rest); 3) thirdly they’re not as open to pure play as younger people, and will tend to expect than anything they apply themselves to should have a payback of some sort, if only looking good to the boss.

Classroom training doesn’t fir any of these criteria, and consequently, the developmental impact is very poor. People might enjoy the training for various reasons, such as a day away from the humdrum of the office or the opportunity to network and discuss tickling concepts, but very little of what is trained is actually applied back on the job – which is not necessarily an issue because most managers expect their staff to get on with the work, and would not necessarily look too kindly on someone setting time aside to experiment with new knowledge.

To be effective in acquiring skills, adult training, must, at the minimum address the three basic problems of experience, relevance and payback:

Lean is unique in its approach to developing people. First, the central tenet of lean management is “making people before making parts” – development is not something on top of the managerial job, it is the managerial job. Consequently, the bulk of people development will occur ON THE JOB. To a large extend, in the lean framework managing is 70% training and 30% solving problems directly.

In this respect, the fundamental contribution of lean to management is to redefine what work means in terms of JOB = WORK + KAIZEN. In the lean mindset, kaizen is the fundamental activity to develop people’s understanding of their own job and deepening of their knowledge of their trade.

Kaizen involves 1) first understanding one’s work in great step-by-step detail, 2) seeing problems where the prescribed steps don’t pan out exactly as expected and 3) realizing the waste involved in doing the job or created to others by the way we do the job so that 4) the person thinks of ways to solve the problems or find another way of doing the work which minimizes the waste incurred.

In this respect, kaizen is a very powerful training tool for adults: firstly, kaizen encourages autonomy in terms of analyzing one’s own work and figuring out ways of solving problems or improving. Certainly, there are a few standard methods to kind the person in doing this, but ultimately it’s all a matter of personal interpretation and initiative. Kaizen can’t be “applied” – it’s essentially about getting people to think for themselves.

Secondly, kaizen is, by its very nature, relevant to the work at hand. The very first question a kaizen coach will ask is: what is the problem you’re trying to solve? A good kaizen problem is one where the current way of doing the job visibly creates overburden on the person or the equipment, stop-and-go variability which creates unnecessary lead-time is wasteful in resources, or wasteful operations that impact quality and costs. Distinguishing work in terms of value-added, incidental and waste is a great heuristic to understand the nature of work. A good kaizen topic should lead to either decrease in costs, increase in quality, decrease in rework, decrease in cycle time, increase in processes per period of time, decrease in variations and elimination of waste – in any of these cases, the impact of the kaizen on the work should be obvious.

Thirdly, the inherent payoff of kaizen is that in the lean mindset, as JOB = WORK + KAIZEN, kaizen is of keen interest to one’s managers. In fact, the ability to solve problems and the ability to work out improvement are the main criteria for a person’s capability and fitness for promotion. In succeeding at driving kaizen efforts, employee demonstrate to their manager the ability to learn and so their likelihood of progress. Furthermore, as coaching employees through kaizen is a key part of the management job, people also get the benefit of developing a stronger relationship with their boss which is usually a reward in itself.

In one construction company where the CEO has embarked on a lean transformation, with quite spectacular bottom-line results, the CEO has devised various ways of getting every population in the company to do kaizen in some form or shape. Obviously, kaizen at senior management level is very different from kaizen at project leader level, for operators on the sites or administrative staff at corporate, but the general idea is that every group of people has a defined way of doing kaizen. Senior management kaizen tend to be closer to hansei: understanding whether company policies and choices have the expected results. Project leader kaizen is mostly about constant vigilance in problem solving and quick reaction. Individual worker kaizen is about understanding the step-by-step nature of the work and eliminating obvious waste such as unnecessary effort and movement. Administrative kaizen centers on reducing lead-time in processes by lightening the admin waste, and being more responsive to the demands of the sites and so on. This is a very hodgepodge approach which includes management oriented kaizen (linked to policy deployment), group oriented kaizen (various functions working together to solve cross-functional problems) or individual oriented kaizen, but the point is that the ultimate goal is that every person in the company should be coached by his or her immediate manager in one kaizen topic at a time.

Eliminating waste is not an end in itself. It’s a very powerful heuristic to teach people to understand their job better in terms of 1) the impact of what they do on other people and the overall process and 2) the deeper principles and practices of their trade. Through practicing waste elimination, employees learn to work better with their colleagues, and so develop better working relationships, as well as to learn more about their own work’s deep knowledge and hands-on practice. If managed in the spirit of respect, kaizen can also be a deep source of motivation as people learn to think and act by themselves, together on improvement projects.

By improving their own work and the processes they are part of, people feel they contribute fundamentally to their company and are part of building its success and future. If the management make the reciprocal effort of developing mutual trust, personal development can go far beyond narrow skills training and be deeply fulfilling by creating meaning and belonging.

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