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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Lean is an attitude

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: dimanche, mai 29, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I’ve now lived through several heartbreaking cases where the chief executive of a lean company or division leaves (retires, company gets purchased, etc.) and all lean gains are lost in six to twelve months, sometimes faster. The company reverts more or less where it was before the lean transformation took off, sometimes worth.

If this serves to show something, is that lean is a management method. Compared to that there are also countless cases of disappointing lean programs. Actually, I personally have still to see a lean initiative not driven by the chief exec succeed – and I’m looking! The best case I’ve seen is in automotive where all the tools are forcefully in place and local plants succeed, but then again, it’s all down to the plant manager – often against his or her hierarchy.

I no longer believe in lean companies. What I see is rare executives committed to lean thinking and, in particular, to using lean as a learning strategy to understand performance rather than great strategies on one hand and cost savings on the other. Again, this is not a random thing as these executives tend to resonate with Orry’s point that lean is a business strategy, not a manufacturing tactic.

I was visiting a plant recently in a large corporation that professes (quite loudly) to do lean, and where the shop floor looks like an absolute mess: there is a basic “flow” but it’s so overwhelmed with in-process inventory (missing parts, wrong scheduling, you name it) and with paperwork to ensure quality, it’s astonishing. The lean officer of this plant has just visited a company I know where the CEO is personally deeply involved with learning lean. This second company has had double digit growth in a very mature industry for three years in a row (and not the easiest business conditions) as well as corresponding profitability. What surprised the lean officer is that she could see very little signs of corporate lean on the gemba. Managers were very busy solving problems and experimenting with new technical solutions on the line of safety, quality, lead-time control and so on, but none of them knew they were doing “lean”: they had had no formal lean training. They responded to the challenges the CEO set for them.

So what we’re really saying is that there are no more than 2% of CEOs actually committed to learn lean thinking and to inventing in their own company this new lean industrial model. This is easily believable: one does not become CEO by taking high risk learning strategies. More often than no, CEOs get to be CEOs because of strong leadership, political skills and not sticking their neck out. And sometimes business results, but that’s by no means a given.

To my mind, first lean programs are certain to fail as long as they’re “programs” in the good ol’ General Motors management thinking. This is not fate or magic, it’s mechanical: same causes have the same effects. Secondly, lean success means spreading the kaizen spirit from the top all the way to the value-adding staff. Lean success means that every function in the enterprise starts to understand the muda created by its technical decisions, and thinks its way into eliminating some of that.

Big gains to appear occasionally, but mostly it’s about a lot of small steps everywhere. The endlessly surprising thing about this approach is that Sales, EBIT, Capex and Cash numbers respond: performance is seen in the P&L, sustainably, even though it’s sometimes hard to attribute the progress to any one action. But it’s tough. I’m currently visiting the owners of a service operation and they’re discovering how lean can be. They thought it’d be a simple thing of delegating projects to key people, and they’re learning the hard way at the fgemba that their operation simply does not work the way they thought: potential is there, but they’re going to have to change their minds before their people do.

Ultimately, I believe lean is an attitude. An attitude to put customers first, to control and reduce lead-time, to confirm problem solving on the gemba, and to support kaizen. Lean success overall is a factor of how many people in the company acquire this attitude; When you hit a critical mass, the company takes off, as long as the leader sticks to cultivating leanness. In this sense, lean success is defined by the number of converts, the proportion of people who “get it”, who understand that you do kaizen first, not when the day-to-day leaves you spare time to dabble in improvement.

Unless we succeed in convincing more people that a lean system is a learning system, not a cookie-cutter program you can plug into your organization along CMMI, six sigma, enterprise architecture and what not, the field will continue as it’s done for the past twenty years: a few spectacular success and lots of disappointing efforts.

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