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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Go to the gemba to learn to learn

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Monday, April 6, 2015 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Can we talk about behavior without talking about intent first?

Mainstream management theory was born out of applying bureaucratic behavior (in the noblest sense) to business. Bureaucracy was a XIXth century effort to balancer aristocratic behavior (my every whim has to be obeyed, or else…) with rational behavior: a hierarchy of goals pursued by a hierarchy of actions. A manager in the food chain gets instructions from higher up, figures out how to carry out these instructions in his or her local conditions, and issues instructions for his subordinates. Information makes its way back up to the top through reports and numbers. Let us not sneer at this as the pre-WWI global expansion of Western commerce-based society was unprecedented in human history.

In other words, managers think and command, their staff execute and managers control. The intent is to use the people you manage as an extra pair of arms, but keep the monopoly on decision-making.

I have no doubt that there’s a lot of this going on a Toyota, but not only. Studying Toyota has opened up another to look at management.

I was on the gemba recently with the manager of very large industrial operations, and we were commenting on the fog of war – it was clearly very difficult to figure out what was going on both with the business and operations from looking at the numbers in the reporting.

On site, however, the manager could first learn to better master the lean principles to pinpoint his managerial challenges:
1. What are the safety issues we’re letting operators deal with (Safety Always)? We could see that many crates were stored on high racks in poor conditions – maybe not the most dangerous work habit on site, but a clear place to start.
2. What quality issues we let customers deal with (Customers First)? Oddly, customers complained often that the paperwork accompanying the products was not well filled in or accurate which created administrative issues. Not the quality spot we had thought of, but a good place to start.
3. What delivery issues we let customers deal with (Customers first)? The actual shipping of products to customers was not looked at precisely, so this also was a good place to start.
4. What frequent rework was left for operators to deal with (Jidoka)? Because testing occurred after paint, we realized much repaint was due to the process itself.
5. What inflexible processes generates a lot of program changes (JIT)? We realized that the poor link between sales emergencies and the planning process created constant reprogram and panic in the scheduling process?
6. Where did operators have to deal with work methods they didn’t own that created a lot of wasted time (Standardized work/Kaizen)? The assembly plan had no operator input or space for operator opinion.
7. What silly spending on work methods would burden every product with cost without adding value (waste)? No brainer, the company was considering a major MRP upgrade without having solved its fundamental flow issues first.

The manager’s instructions from his own corporate boss were to 1) implement a new MRP to reduce inventory and 2) set-up a cost reduction exercise on the highest-selling product to improve margins.

Clearly, the lean practice of going to the gemba and learning how to master lean principles highlighted very different potential starting points to improve the business.

Having derived a new understanding of the business from using lean thinking at the gemba, the lean way of managing change is also different. Rather than tell middle-managers to do this or that, the lean leader will ask each middle manager to start an experiment using visualization, problem solving or improvement workshops to explore further the issues encountered.

The lean approach is to support each middle manager in learning how to face the issues highlighted by their executive leader. This learning can lead to either:
1. Spot improvement, but no process change
2. Local work method change to reduce waste
3. Procedure change as other functions get involved an the business can be improved on the whole
4. The creation of a system of continuous improvement on the topic

In other words, as people learn to solve the issue, the leadership learns with them, and individual intelligence can hopefully lead to greater collective intelligence.

The lean intent is to find improvement issues at the gemba, and then involve the people on the ground in devising learning systems to turn problems into opportunities. Behaviors will be radically different, not in style, but in substance.

A lean manager will therefore spend a lot of time on the gemba to face their own problems and raise problem awareness – visual management is the basis of turning company level-challenges into here and there problems to solve. Rather than instruct her middle managers on what to do, a lean manager will task her direct reports in conducting small step improvement efforts in order to both better understand the reality of the problem and imagine new ways of doing things. Thirdly, a lean manager will have to help the middle manager convince others so that the new ideas emerging from kaizen get adopted at the entire business level.

You learn, they learn. They learn, you learn.

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