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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: One of the first aims should be to develop people to use a systematic process for improvement

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Many, many people have been in your situation. The top wants lean, which they have some understanding of from somewhere, and they want you to go get it. “Develop a plan. Find a consultant.” You are correct that there are almost as many flavors of lean as there are consultants. And who knows what flavor your management got exposed to from the conference they attended, or the board member, or the COO who had an experience in a previous firm. Who knows what they expect? Operational excellence? Quick wins in cost reduction to please the owners by the end of the year? Or perhaps they are more enlightened and really want the company to be excellent over the long term? And are they willing to spend some money on top outside help or do they want a little bit of moderate priced help so you can be self sufficient quickly and harvest the gains of lean?

I am just going through the process with a company where an industrial engineer who is in a position of influence wanted help and called me based on my books. We skyped and I explained the philosophy which is long term and developing capability within the firm. She and the firm had no experience with lean so I suggested a pilot. I put one of my best consultants on it. They wanted an assessment which took three months to schedule. My consultant wrote an insightful report and concluded they are a mess, made worse by significant reductions in force, leaving them short handed everywhere. I thought it was all going great until my consultant explained that 1) they did not think the report was insightful as it told them things they had told him and 2) what he was proposing was too slow and they wanted quick results with only one week a month of help and they wanted to be self sufficient by the end of the year. I wrote a letter explaining our philosophy and explaining if we do what they are asking for they will have nothing sustainable at the end of the year and have no real internal expertise–it will self implode. Obviously there is not a good fit between what they think they can buy and what we are selling.

If you think about a few flavors of lean:

1. Imitation driven:Toyota is the model for lean and they have kanban, andon, posted standard work sheets, visual management, 5S, cells, so if we implement these we will also be lean. (Assumption: If we do what we see at Toyota and look like them we will be better).

2. Tool driven: We need to deploy the tools to get results. There is a logical framework for deploying the tools in some sequence, e.g., 5S first, then stability tools, then cells, then pull, then leveling. If we implement them everywhere we will lean out the operation. (Assumption: the tools can be implemented broadly and quickly and have the inherent power to eliminate waste and thus make us better).

3. Cost Pressure driven: We do not have a choice. We have to get lean. We have new competition from (name your developing country) and there labor costs are 10% of ours and if we do not get lean we will be out of business or have to move all our operations overseas. (Assumption: Lean is a magic pill for cost reduction and efficiency. Implement lean and take out people).

4. Culture driven: We want a culture of engaged people continuously improving. The people are more important then the tools so if we use the right change management methods we will set the stage for using appropriate lean tools. (Assumption: Change management is a separate set of skills and activities from lean deployment and if we do these things to warm up the work force they will accept the changes).

5. Learning driven: Lean is a mindset and a pattern of behaviors that leads to an endless quest for a better way focused on what the business and each customer needs.

Talk to any of the top lean experts in the world today and they define lean as some version of number 5. Quality Progress did a special article in February, 2014 interviewing seven lean leaders, a number who are on this site, and they all had a version of the learning model and critiqued a narrow focus on either deploying tools or focusing narrowly on efficiency.

Mike Rother has made the important observation that lean should be directed toward a clear purpose and that should be broken down to specific “target conditions.” If you buy this model then the starting point is to have a reason for lean both as a long-term vision and as a short to mid-term challenge to focus the efforts. Then activity should be focused rather narrowly on the challenge which needs to get converted to concrete “target conditions” which your studies of the current condition indicate will move you in the direction of your goals. One of the first “target conditions” should be to develop people to use a systematic process for improvement. As we put this in Toyota Culture, people development and process improvement go hand in hand. Whenever you are trying to improve something you should be thinking about what skills you need to develop in people and how you can effectively do that. Rother’s improvement kata (routine) is a concrete approach to improvement which is teachable in a clear way using the coaching kata (routine). When I study these they reflect what I have learned from the way Toyota master sensei teach TPS, but Mike has made them more structured and teachable without a Toyota sensei. On the other hand they do require a skilled coach who: 1) is a master of an effective improvement process, 2) has the technical skills to break down the improvement process into teachable pieces, 3) has the social skills to know how to motivate and lead people to learn through struggle, and 4) keeps the organization focused on a specific direction that matters to the business and customer. This may mean going slow at first in specific targeted areas (e.g., model line approach) with specific people targeted to be the early learners. http://fr.slideshare.net/JeffLiker/a-lean-team-needs-a-goal

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