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Mike Rother

Mike Rother: Lean Can Be a Great Integrator

By Mike Rother, - Last updated: Thursday, July 21, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Question: Did the writers of books about Excellence and what makes great organizations get it right to begin with and does lean add anything new?

Recently, as I was watching an improvement team working at a 3-person U-shaped assembly cell at an automotive supplier, I was reminded of the importance of lean-specific knowledge.

The improvement team’s task was to distribute the assembly work among the three operators in the cell, i.e., to determine the handoff points between the operators. As the improvement team discussed and sketched options I noticed that every one of their work-distribution scenarios was linear. That is, the only operator work distributions the team was considering for their next experiment followed the work as it progressed around the cell.

So I threw in a nugget of lean knowledge, advising the team that there can be an advantage to having an operator work across the cell and do both the leadoff and final work elements, since this can give a nice one-in, one-out rhythm to the cell. That’s not necessarily obvious or intuitive, like a lot of lean knowledge.

Limits of the Excellence literature

I find several writers of books about Excellence are on the scent of modern management and more scientific / systems thinking, and they have helped calibrate my thinking again and again. But from the Lean community perspective I think there are two problems with relying on Excellence books alone:

1) They don’t include lean-specific knowledge:

At its best, something the Lean community does so well is combine concepts of excellence in management with specific, unique and even counterintuitive technical practices for how to move closer to the ideal of providing what customers need when they need it and where they need it.

2) They are too general to be practiced, and thus learned:

The Excellence literature has yet to get to the point where it is providing specific, detailed, proven routines (kata) that managers can practice every day in order to develop the mindset and behavior that the literature espouses. As neuroscience is showing us so clearly, you can tell a novice baseball pitcher to “throw it over the plate” and you would be correct, but that alone will not change the pitcher’s behavior. The pitcher will have to be shown and practice every day a specific set of new moves and routines in order to, over time, develop the desired mindset and skills.

An Opportunity for Lean

But the Lean community needs to evolve too. 20 years ago we entered through the door of specific lean practices and knowledge, because that’s what’s most noticeably visible when you benchmark a Toyota facility. Yet as many of us are finding, applying lean practices without the associated procedure of thinking and acting (which, admittedly, is difficult to see) often tends to generate spot improvements that fall victim to entropy, rather than continuous improvement.

Mike

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