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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Lean thinking spreads only as fast as each individual manager learns to think lean

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Sunday, July 14, 2013 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

This is a difficult question to answer because it begs, in the way that it is formulated, an answer that doesn’t exist (to my knowledge) in lean. Let’s face it: lean is not scalable. Or put it in another way, if any one knows how to scale lean, let’s patent it and sell it and make a quick buck.

The key to spreading lean thinking (and obtaining the associated performance improvement) is to develop the kaizen spirit in every person. The only known way any specific person can learn the kaizen spirit is to be coached on the gemba by a sensei. This core constraint creates a specific geometry to lean efforts: 1) if the CEO gets it, then size of the organization doesn’t matter as they’ll do their gemba visits and train their line to cascade downwards, but 2) if the CEO is not personally involved and the idea is to spread lean performance improvement across the organization, it simply won’t work.

As far as I can tell, Toyota itself struggles mightily with this issue, and has spotty results – as can be seen plant by plant. It has created a “shadow organization” of coaches: sensei who work at executive level, coordinators at middle-management level, and shop-floor trainers for frontline guys. This shadow organization has its own knowledge hierarchy, training traditions and lineages, and is far from optimal solution to the problem, but still the best I’ve come across.

Out of Toyota, it’s a headache. I know a service company (sales and maintenance of equipment) that is currently struggling with a very distributed base. After much scratching of heads, what is emerging is:
1) a CEO gemba visit program of customer sites and central distribution hubs;
2) a diligent lean supply chain improvement program for all the regional hubs to make sure parts supply is at its operational best through constant challenge
3) A “dojo” program where the service reps are required to regularly spend a day in the regional centers for training sessions on critical operations
4) Kaizen efforts led by middle-managers in various functions of the company, from dispatch to sales, to works planning etc.

It emerges from all this hard work that progress is never uniform and very much depends on the local manager’s “getting it” or not. Secondly, regional situations are more different on the gemba than originally appeared from headquarters, and cookie cutter attempts have not been very successful. On the other hand, in the current difficult commercial context, this company has shown record bottom line results and is now in the spotlight of its parent corporation – who is trying to bottle the recipe for success to spread it to other companies it owns across the continent.

This is a profound question that strikes at the heart of lean and why it’s so hard to diffuse it. Sustained lean gains are obtained by leaders who “get it” and work with their teams and colleagues across borders to improve quality, reduce lead-time and build common trust. It’s tempting to think that some of the specific solutions they think up can be applied across to other units, but experience, unfortunately, shows that it’s rarely the case. In lean tradition, yokoten (copy from someone and kaizen the idea to adapt it to your gemba) is explicitly different from best practice implementation.

No easy answers then, other than the advice from Pat Lancaster twenty years ago: find a sensei you can work with, start from the top, spread it through the line.

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