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Jeff Liker

Dan Jones: Who struggles more with lean

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Saturday, June 25, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I remember two distinguished CEOs from the auto industry telling me that it was impossible to get their sales and marketing people to go lean. Although my colleague Dave Brunt and I have never given up this quest they have a point. In our experience the hardest people to convince are those whose natural temperament is doing deals, the traders and negotiators who are always looking forward to the next deal and have no patience for the discipline involved in improving processes. Although Dave has had some extraordinary success with what are now some of the best Toyota dealers, it has been a long road to get others to follow.

However these natural and impatient wheelers and dealers are not just found in the auto industry, you can find them in many places, including at the top of banks and branded consumer goods firms. However difficult it is to attract their attention in my experience if you can show them the potential opportunities for incased sales from meeting every order on time and in full or by faster response to consumer service enquiries or by getting new products to market faster they will listen with interest. They may be sceptical until you can prove it really can be done but if you succeed they will go with it.

The second obstacle after temperament is where the context is not conducive, usually where firms or whole industries are making so much money there is no real need for lean. If they do become interested in lean because it is now a good thing to be seen to be doing it they are likely to throw almost too much money at their lean programme. While programmes to engage staff in improving their work are a good thing, it is very different matter developing the deep problem solving skills necessary to make these improvements add up along the end-to-end value stream to generate lasting results. A shared challenge to improve their fortunes is a great driver. But again if you have a leader with the right vision it is not impossible to make lean successful in this environment.

The other context that looks impossible is the public sector. However over the last two years I have seen a complete turnaround in attitudes across the public sector in the UK as the economic crisis began to squeeze budgets by up to 20%. What is striking is that staff realise that lean can help them continue to deliver their services to the public even if their budgets are being cut. They are also tax payees and if the workforce is dealt with in the right way they will go along with it. The UK government is soon going to publish it’s continuous improvement strategy for the whole of central government – the beginning of a very interesting journey.

The final obstacle to doing lean are the circumstances – usually where individuals find it almost impossible to see the impact of what they do on the rest of the end-to-end value stream they are part of. The classic example is in healthcare, where everyone only sees the room they are working in and no one is responsible for the patient journey through the hospital. However in my experience the doctors and nurses are not the problem, they quickly understand the point of using the same scientific method to diagnose and treat organisational problems that they are very aware of as they use for diagnosing and tearing patients. Their usual reaction is why have we not been doing this before!

The problem, at least in UK hospitals but elsewhere as well, is that managers are caught up in endless meetings so they do not have time to go to the Gemba and problems never get fixed. However if you can help them see the entire patient journey and the deep causes of the variation that causes the overburden and waste then rapid progress ca be made. But this entails lifting our sights beyond point improvement activities. I have no doubt that as healthcare budgets worldwide continue to be squeezed this will prompt more and more healthcare organisations to do this in the years ahead.

One lesson from the TWI programme that John Shook is always reminding us of the adage “if the pupil has not learnt, then the teacher has not taught.” This is so true and whenever I face setbacks and experiments I am involved in do not work I take this is a signal to dig a little deeper to discover the real root causes of the problem, which are not always immediately visible. I do not share the pessimism of other pundits who pronounce on why lean will never work or why lean fails, but then maybe I am just a natural optimist and never give up.

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