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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Is it lean learning we’re talking about? Or lean squeezing?

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Saturday, February 8, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

It depends. What kind of lean are we talking about?

First, there’s lean lite – you want to improve the operational performance of this or that process. In this case, find a consultant you can work with, do a model case, usually through mapping the existing process with a team and drawing out a future state process and then implementing it. Then, being convinced of the effectiveness of this approach (unless the consultant is completely useless, it always works), you can convince your management that if you replicate the savings you’ve had throughout the organizations, you’ll get real, visible, bottom-line improvements. If the outfit is large enough, they’re likely to say yes, and now you get a team of internal coaches, consultants to train them to lean tools and kaizen vocabulary and a list of processes to squeeze in order to get the juice.

This keeps you going of a couple of years until it gets harder and harder to find people willing to be squeezed, the CFO is breathing on your neck arguing that she sees all these great savings numbers but can’t see them on the bottom line and your consultant is losing interest because they’ve found their next prey. To make matters worse, you meet me at a conference and I yell at you to stop calling what you do lean. Taylorism is fine as far as it goes but it’s not lean.

But what is the alternative?

There isn’t one.

Or a very slim chance that your CEO hears about this lean stuff, and reads a book or two. An incredibly slimmer chance that, instead of doing business with the first consultant she knows, she actually spends some time going to conferences and discovering the community. She finally realizes that if she wants to truly lean her company, she’ll first have to transform herself and learn all that genchi genbutsu stuff. So she looks for a real sensei.

True sensei are rare (count the degrees of separation with Taiichi Ohno), expensive and generally a pain to deal with. But, assuming that she does find one she can work with, she will then embark on a journey of learning to walk the gemba and learn the “helicopter” practice – the mental shifting from very detailed work to large strategy and back to work and so on. Learning, for a CEO doesn’t occur at the strategic nor the work level, but during the mental shift.

Any sensei worth his salt will then teach the business to pull work through a flow, and there are many ways to do so, but generally, we’re talking about a six months effort in one area, and then training all other areas to do the same (which generally involves building a central master scheduling function in the process).

The sensei will also insist time and time again on kaizen mind – on giving people space to think so that they learn to see the waste they cause themselves (it’s easy to see the waste caused by someone else) and the skills gaps to acquire to generate less waste in working with others.

If your CEO’s made it thus far, chances are she’s hooked. At first all that just-in-time, pull system stuff seemed mysterious, but now, she’s starting to see the deep challenges of her business more clearly. Customers complain, processes are inflexible, the business does nonsensical things for excellent reasons. One day, she sees that it’s better to stop a delivery with an issue and investigate rather then ship and then deal with the problem. Four or five years down the line, after she’s changed the focus of her business, replaced half her management team, engaged her employees, she’ll turn around and say, “you know what? This Jidoka concept is sooo powerful!”

I know of no easy way to start with lean. And it doesn’t matter. Why should it be easy? Lean is about gaining lasting competitive advantage by developing a set of skills that competitors can’t copy easily. Which part of that says “easily”? I’m sorry to say that if your management has tasked you to come up with a lean plan, unless you’re high up in the food chain, you’re already off to a bad start: they’re already asking you to learn in their stead – how sensible is that? And so what? Competitive advantage is just that, competitive advantage. For every company that goes down the route of indifferent process-improvement programs adding the cost of consultants, workshops, roadmaps, reporting to its existing cost, the real lean companies gain value – how is that a problem?

Unless you’re very lucky (which can and does happen, but rarely) the path of least resistance is unlikely to yield transformational results. On the other hand, any honest, hard working effort at process improvement will, well, improve processes. How that should help in improving products and servicing existing customers? I don’t know. How this should help in seeking the customers of tomorrow? I don’t know. How this should help uncovering the wrong-headed thinking (in lean terms, the misconceptions) that add to your company’s cost burden? I don’t know. How should that engage all employees in their own development by giving them responsibility to improve their own work and support them to align their job fulfillment with the company’s success? I don’t know. But then again, not knowing is definitely one thing we learn by practicing lean on the gemba every day. So, how do you start with lean? It depends.

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