Promotion of Lean Must Evolve

Who doesn’t admire Art Byrne, Orry Fiume, and the other members of the Wiremold senior management team? I’ve known Art and Orry for many years and continue to be captivated by their accomplishments and that of the entire Wiremold workforce. The Wiremold Company’s transformation remains a classic blueprint for success. Since retiring from Wiremold in the early 2000s, Art and Orry have actively promoted Lean management at conferences, in books, articles, webcasts, etc. They are highly respected and have been very generous with their time in educating others. Their practical knowledge is impressive, having learned TPS from the best consultants, Shingijutsu. And, of course, we are thankful for the CEOs who have learned from Art and Orry because life is surely better for employees and all other stakeholders.

Cycles2But I have a concern about how they and many others promote Lean to gain a larger following among CEOs, CFOs, and other top executives. What I say below about their work is merely representative of what many other people do to advance Lean management, which is largely ineffective. Efforts to promote Lean management are stuck in the past (Phase 1); these methods made sense decades ago, but not any longer. Furthermore, efforts to promote Lean are hampered by preconceptions about the intended executive audience that limit effectiveness.

Recently, Art Byrne answered the question “How do I get the senior management team on board with Lean?” It included the following points (quoting):

  • you need to persuade your senior team that converting to lean is essential and will lead to dramatic results
  • share specific examples of the types of success that other companies have had as a result of converting to lean
  • continue to make clear that lean is strategic and not just a bunch of tools that can be used to cut costs
  • be sure to explain that lean requires teamwork to be successful
  • take your senior team to visit some companies that are well down the lean path so that your people can see how different a lean operation looks from what you do now
  • when you get back, get your team together and create a value stream structure that is very different from your current functional approach.
  • make sure your senior team members are on a lot of kaizens each year

All of that is technically true. It is advice that Art has given for more than 20 years. Yet, we see few Lean transformations where companies have achieved just-in-time (flow of material and information). Instead, what we see is pervasive use of Lean tools to achieve some localized improvements that don’t do much for the bottom line or for people development. My conclusion is that Art’s advice, while sound, has not done much to change things. Its ineffectiveness is the result of preconceptions such as (my comments in italics):

  • Talking to one’s direct reports, sharing examples, seeing examples first-hand suggest that resistance to Lean is an intellectual problem. — Thus, it does not address social, political, or emotional aspects that would contribute to acceptance of Lean.
  • Participation in kaizen generates the aha! moment that will make leaders capitulate to Lean. — There is lots of evidence to the contrary.
  • “people who succeeded over the years by applying and believing in all the traditional management approaches” will resist Lean. — Practicing and believing in traditional management approaches” is not the singular barrier to Lean acceptance.
  • “[Lean] is the best way to run any business” — After more than 30 years of intense efforts to promote Lean, few CEOs see it that way.
  • This will allow you to gain market share and grow.” — There are lots of ways to gain market share and grow without Lean.

This advice is an example, one of many, that has failed to evolve in light of the facts. My comment to Art on his post was:

“Art, with respect, this is the hackneyed advice that has been proven over decades to have very little impact. The good news is that this consistently unfavorable outcome clearly informs us that the problem is more complicated than is commonly understood, and that we must look elsewhere for answers — work that I have undertaken over the last several years. In particular, there are deep-rooted economic, social, political, historical, business, and philosophical factors that generate strong executive resistance to Lean management. I have articulated these, in detail, in my recent writings, and the findings point the way to many other ideas and methods to experiment with in order to gain acceptance for Lean management among executives. We all share the same goal of advancing Lean, but to do that we must now move on and vigorously apply “trystorming” to very important this problem.”

Art did not like that I wrote that.

Recently, Orry Fiume wrote an article, “How can I show my CEO that Lean is the right thing to do?” Orry masterfully describes how return on investment is improved by improving the base resources used in any productive activity. Orry concludes the article by saying:

“When trying to convince your CEO and CFO that lean is the best growth strategy, explain how each element of ROI is improved by lean. Then it should be clear that lean is the best way to achieve dramatic increases in ROI.”

This is advice that Orry has given for more than 20 years. And I will say it once again: We still see few Lean transformations where companies have achieved just-in-time (flow of material and information). As with Art’s advice, Orry’s advice has not done much to change things. Its ineffectiveness is the result of preconceptions such as (my comments in italics):

  • Business is about making money. — Money is certainly important, but, surprisingly, several other things are as pertinent to CEOs interests.
  • CEOs are logical thinkers and can be convinced via logical technical arguments. — CEOs business logic (de jure) differs markedly from technical logic (de facto).
  • CEOs are logical thinkers and can be convinced via real-world examples of Lean leadership and Lean transformation. — Occasionally yes, but typically no.
  • CEOs listen to lower level people or other CEOs. — In the context of lean, the former is highly unlikely, while the latter is less likely that you would imagine.

Orry won’t like that I wrote this. But it is just another example, one of many, that has also failed to evolve in light of the facts.

Even new advice promoting Lean management is suspect. Check out this rambling response by Michael Ballé to a simple question that completely dodges the issue at hand: the elephant(s) in the room. Ballé’s lack of honesty and directness is stunning. It seems the metric, number of new people recruited to Lean this month(?), is more important than telling the truth about Lean, which is succinctly explained in my comment:

With Lean, there are many “elephants in the room,” not just one. Here is a sampling of elephants: 1) As Art Byrne says, “Everything must change.” While true, that’s not a popular thing that executives wish to strive for. 2) Leadership beliefs, behaviors, and competencies for Lean are completely different from classical management. Therefore, most top leaders resist Lean. 3) Normally, you have to learn Lean principles and practices from someone who has been successful at achieving material and information flow. 4) Lean transformation is rare, while the use of Lean methods and tools are far more common. 5) It is critically important to learn kaizen methods to be successful and have business impact. 6) Typically, labor is not interested in Lean. 7) Teaching people how to skillfully solve problems is itself a big problem. 8) The learning is never-ending. 9) “Respect for People” is surprisingly difficult to understand and practice. 10) The socio-technical logic of Lean differs markedly from business logic. Etc. Despite these and other challenges, it is well worth the effort to learn Lean by improving processes. It is also a lot of fun.

TCM Cover v2bThe facts suggest a pressing need to evolve the promotion of Lean via rapid cycles of experimentation. But one need not do so blindly. Trial-and-error can be improved by recognizing the existence of new information that comprehensively explains why these approaches to promoting Lean have been largely ineffective. As I said in my book, The Triumph of Classical Management Over Lean Management, the adoption of Lean management by CEOs is not a technical or intellectual problem. It is a political problem. That is just one of dozens of new pieces of information in my book that can help move the promotion of Lean forward into Phase 2.

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