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Jeff Liker

Dan Jones: Lean Academies and KPOs

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Every organisation needs a home for developing its lean capabilities. They may differ depending on circumstances and will certainly change focus over time. The first and most ambitious exercise I was involved in from 1993 was to create the first corporate university in the UK to develop lean capabilities across the Unipart Group of Companies in auto parts manufacturing and after-market distribution. “Unipart U” as it became known was truly innovative and drew directly on the Operations Management Group at Toyota, who at that point was providing Unipart with technical help on lean. It remains one of the most successful examples in the UK and is the model many other organisations followed in establishing their own Lean Academies later on. Since then I have seen many other types of KPOs. On reflection there are three core lessons I would draw from them.

First you need a focus for developing lean knowledge and experience across the organisation. Lean capabilities and problem solving are learnt by line managers solving problems in the processes they are responsible for, not primarily through professional training in classrooms. For this reason we selected the most experienced line managers and gave them Sensei support to develop further while using the redundant Training Department to teach them how to teach and mentor others. Today this would include using the TWI approach to learning-by-doing, mentoring using A3 and the practice of Kata.

Our “core faculty” was spread across the business in line management positions, with careful rotation to deepen their experience and take lean to new areas. This contrasts with the traditional roll out of a centrally developed training portfolio taught by professional trainers with little line management responsibility. It is much closer to the model of developing a small cadre of Senseis or Lean Masters who coach key line managers and help top management to focus efforts on closing the capability gaps in the organisation.

Second using this lean knowledge and practice needs to be recognised and celebrated. I must admit I was initially sceptical about the need for this but came to appreciate how powerful it is in changing behaviours and building a new culture out of many shared stories. While visual management makes deviations from the plan and problems visible, how people respond to these challenges depends entirely on how management all the way to the top signals their interest and support.

This does not just happen – it needs to be an integral part of the work of the Lean Office or KPO. It involves branding initiatives to communicate their purpose, responding quickly to suggestions, regular opportunities to share stories and top management recognition of the achievements of individuals and teams in going the extra mile in solving problems that impact the customer. This engagement is reinforced as good Hoshin deployment processes and standard work for managers spread across the business.

Third someone needs to capture this knowledge and share it across the organisation. One of the first things we did was to create a common problem solving and reporting format that allowed us to capture every story in a standard way from problem identification and diagnosis through to the lessons learnt in resolving it. We then put every activity on an intranet, that became the first port of call for anyone encountering a problem. Before doing anything they would search to see who else had encountered a similar problem before, what tools they used, what lessons they learnt and who to ask for help using a new tool.  The aim was to provide knowledge of the tool in the morning and to use it in the afternoon to complete the learning-by-doing cycle quickly. This was reinforced later with several communities of practice across the many sites around the world.

These are the foundations for a Lean Office or KPO. Many have developed additional roles over the years, such as coaching management in using lean management tools, like Hoshin planning, value stream analysis and standard work for managers as well as the coaching and visual project management skills to make them work. Some have also played a key role in facilitating major product and process redesign initiatives and in helping managers articulate the needs of their processes during the roll-out of SAP. In other words supporting lean as a strategic activity.

So, keep your Lean Office small and focused on developing the capabilities of line managers and shop floor teams and reinforcing behaviours by sharing stories. Switch the emphasis away from the professionalisation of lean through widespread training and certification. It is a mistake to think there is “one best way” to use lean, when what we are doing is developing a common, scientific approach to thinking through actions and working together. The true value of a Lean Office is judged by the ability of line management and shop floor teams to solve the next set of problems after they leave. It is therefore also mistaken to task the Lean Office with achieving cost reduction targets, as their objective should be to help line management to to improve their processes so top management can use these to grow sales, save cash, remove unnecessary cost and free up capital.

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