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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Lean leadership is knowledge leadership – lean is for people with the ability to learn

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Friday, January 15, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Lean is not always that hard. Sure it’s work: difficult to think that any method  to perform better would not be. But more importantly, not all people take to it equally. A few find lean to be just work: challenging, but quite natural. Many will never get it. Peter Senge hits the nail right on the head as to the difficulties encountered with adopting the lean approach: 1) the learning component of lean is often underestimated, no matter how much the sensei insist upon it; 2) lean learning is based on acknowledging one’s mistakes and taking responsibility for the fact that one’s problems are largely created by one’s own processes and reactions; 3) many managers are pushed to “apply” lean and find ways to do so whilst ignoring the learning dimension, and 4) even those who are able and ready to learn can find it hard to be directed to right advisors, or groups of other managers doing “true lean”.

I was recently in a company that has increased its on-time delivery while cutting its inventory by a third (with a considerable cash impact). For this firm lean is hard as work is hard, but no more – they progress regularly over time taking step after step. How have they done it? First, they’ve had to learn how to implement a pull system. This has revealed a number of planning mistakes they were making routinely (for lack of seeing any better way) and has led them to distinguish for different types of products: 1) high volume products in leveled pull, 2) middle-runners held in stock at standard level (when they’re a pull on the stock, a replenishment is immediately rescheduled and leveled) 3) on-demand exotics, produced right when the demand falls and 4) promotion builds leveled through time. A true sign of learning, they have realized they needed to treat these four categories of parts differently through different systems: they have learned how to deliver better, by realizing reality is not monolithic, but can be sliced and each slice addressed specifically – which is a fundamental lean insight.

But this company has something special: most members of the senior management team show an unusual bias for learning. I’ve seen them willing to try new things, and ready to recognize their mistakes and draw conclusions (I’m not saying they like it, but they do it). What they are struggling with is the discipline to do so demanded by lean, but that’s also what they appreciate in the approach. Interestingly, lean implementation on the shop floor has been uneven according to the disposition of individual managers and, it is now realized, according to their ability to learn. Some local managers, such as the guy in charge of production planning, have taken to this very naturally (okay, I’ll try it, and see what happens: oh, look, this is interesting), some have done it under pressure (I’ll do it because you want me to, but if you don’t check up on me I’ll go back to doing my “real” job) and there are those who’ve not changed their mind no matter what. This has created some tension inside the company as evaluation of managers has progressively changed as more sophisticated lean tools were implemented. This firm is a clear-cut case demonstrating the ability to learn as a pre-requisite for leaning one’s own processes (and getting the increased performance).

It’s true that, unfortunately, many lean advisors propose a learning-less lean: apply the method, and you’ll have results, no matter what. But this also reflects the by-and-large demand of many companies: tell us what to do, but don’t ask us to think. This bias has been reinforced by corporate groups with an ingrained “taylorist” bias who, for the sake of quicker “implementation” have created central offices with the mission of imposing lean on everyone (and I should, know, I have been part of such programs). The lean movement must accept that “making people before making products” is not a nice to have, but the very core of lean, and that programs should be designed accordingly.

Lean is not for every one – why should it be? Lean moments of truth happen doing kaizen with frontline workers, or at the gemba with a sensei, realizing one’s own misconceptions. Lean is a systematic extension of PDCA: observe problems where they occur, kaizen to investigate causes, test cause-and-effect relationships, and confirm countermeasures. Lean can structure and accelerate learning, but it can’t magically put in the learning bias in people who don’t have it. We need to accept that, and get to terms with patchy lean implementations, until, progressively, companies build management teams around the twin personal inclinations towards self-development and developing others.

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