Lean Without Drama

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The vast majority of Lean transformation efforts that I see progress at a pace that I find tremendously disappointing. Improvement is slow and plodding, and with little enthusiasm. It is somnolent Lean; Lean with no drama. Yet, the condition that I find most businesses in tells me that it is in a state of emergency. Their dire work (struggle to get anything done) and social (dysfunctional culture) conditions suggests there should be a lot of drama! The andon light for the company should be shining bright red, with everyone immediately coming to its aid.

Reflecting back on my initial experiences in the early 1990s, I can say that I did not learn Lean. Instead, I learned kaizen, TPS, and elements of Toyota management’s thinking from Shingijutsu consultants. They taught me things about time and about taking action that Lean does not teach or does not teach well. Here are some things I learned that can help Lean practitioners:

  • Do it Now – Got an improvement idea? Try it out, now. Not tomorrow or next week. Now. Improve quickly (hourly, daily), not slowly. There is too much talk about improvement, a carry-over from conventional management into Lean management, and not enough action. For example, A3s are for managers, not workers. Why are so many workers doing A3s instead of taking action? Why do people spend a five days creating a value stream map instead of taking action to make 10 or 20 significant improvements in the same five days?
  • Mr. Nakao’s “Nos” – When facilitating kaizen, Mr. Nakao constrains people by invoking 10, 20, or 30 “Nos.” He restricts available resources so that kaizen teams cannot invoke their usual countermeasures to abnormal conditions: more people, more money, more space, more equipment, and so on. This forces people to think creatively, and Mr. Nakao gives team members a few hours to devise several countermeasures. Invariably, they succeed under such conditions and devise simple, low-cost countermeasures to abnormal conditions that have existed for 5, 10, 20, or more years.
  • Survival Mentality – Companies do not have a God-given right to exist. Their fortunes can change rapidly and their existence can be quickly extinguished. To avoid such a fate, management and employees must adopt a survival mentality. It is a device, self-imposed, to motivate one’s self to think differently about time and about processes. Without the survival mentality, people go about improvement slowly, as if everything is fine. Think as Mr. Nagamatsu does: “We are always at our worst. You may think you are a good company today, but make no mistake you are not. You may become better tomorrow, but still you are toward the back. At any moment, somewhere in this world there is someone doing the same work better. There is no end. You must continually seek to improve.”
  • Genba Walks: I see managers walk around to more-or-less inventory or affirm the existence of things in the workplace: “I see three people, five machines, yellow lines on the floor…” Instead, managers should ask: “What do I see that is a threat to our survival? Safety, waste, unevenness, unreasonableness, unhappy people…”
  • Dramatizing Abnormal Conditions: We learned the “Quality Control Process Charts” (QCPC) method to calculate turnback ratios to determine the total performance of the process over a period of time. The units turned back would typically be a small number per operation or in total. If left at that, people would simply ignore the defects because the number is small. In QCPC, the turnback ratio is calculated as a percent and added across all operations to yield a BIG number that people will pay attention to and therefore take action to correct. This is one way in which abnormal conditions are magnified (dramatized) to get people to pay attention and take action. Others include andon lights, line stop, etc.
  • Slow Yokoten: Yokoten means to (quickly) share information about improvements or abnormal conditions, so that others across the organization can benefit. Definitions of yokoten (and most other definitions) exclude a time function, so people share information when they get around to it. Information sharing is not understood as something to do quickly and frequently.
  • Emotion: When people quickly make wonderful, creative improvements to simplify their work, it brings tears to your eyes. Seeing people do things that they never thought they were capable of doing is a dramatic, emotional event for them and others who see what they accomplished. It makes people feel good about themselves and the future of their business.

If managers and associates practice Lean management with the same sense of time as conventional management, then little will be accomplished even after many years. Naturally, leaders will lose confidence in Lean and move on to something else.

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