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by Jerry Feingold and Bob Miller

Editor's note: In the following article, Bob Miller of Advanced Bionics Corp. and Jerry Feingold, a consultant working with Miller, reflect on their individual perspectives as they moved through a lean event.

Conventional wisdom holds that lean be introduced as a top-down program. It requires the chief executive not only to kick off the effort but also to stay involved in all aspects of the implementation. Middle managers who find themselves working for a leader with no interest in lean often make little progress in reducing waste, waiting instead for the movement to start above them. Organizations that face this dilemma can remain stagnant for long periods and risk being left behind by more nimble competition.

What can employees in the middle do if they have a burning desire to implement lean principles in their organization but know that their superiors have little interest in doing so? This article describes one company's highly successful transformation using kaizen (i.e., continuous improvement) as its underlying tactic. Particularly effective was its success-deployment plan, which anticipated the lack of active participation by senior management during the early phases.

Advanced Bionics
Jerry Feingold : I first met Bob Miller, director of advanced factory management at Advanced Bionics, a division of Boston Scientific, at the company's headquarters in Sylmar, California. The operation was impressive, as was the product it produced: implantable neurostimulators to cure the deaf and treat intractable pain. What wasn't particularly impressive was the factory itself. Although it was a clean-room environment that looked quite scientific, it was anything but a lean operation.

There are many practices widely adapted by world-class companies employing lean principals, such as predictive or preventive maintenance, cellular manufacturing, continuous-flow production and kanban (i.e., just-in-time manufacturing), among others. Few of these were evident in the production areas I saw at Advanced Bionics.

Bob Miller: I joined Advanced Bionics in 2002. During my early assessment of manufacturing at the company, I noticed a tremendous amount of production waste. A number of indicators all pointed in the "unlean" direction: cycle times that were two to three times the theoretical rate; high labor variances, even with everyone working diligently for long hours; heavy batching in production of even simple assemblies; and no sense of flow. But the business was healthy and growing, and senior management was clearly focused on market penetration, introducing new product and some up-and-coming business opportunities. Operational efficiency wasn't on the list.

Although senior management didn't see operational improvement as the most pressing business challenge, the byproducts of muda (i.e., activities that require resources but produce little value) were making life in manufacturing difficult for everyone. The need for a lean initiative was universally acknowledged, but it was also universally ignored. Everyone seemed to be waiting for the president to take the first step.

Medical device manufacturing is an interesting industry, subject to different market forces than many businesses that have adopted lean. The price charged for these products is determined by insurance reimbursement, long product-development cycles, critical reliability, and manufacturing processes that are very change- and risk-averse. Under these conditions, there's not much incentive for top executives to adopt a lean program.

Jerry introduced me to the idea of the kaizen blitz, which seemed perfect for our needs. Although training was definitely needed, the kaizen blitz would incorporate it on day one without dragging out the process and allowing the blitz to lose momentum. Plus, I could invite senior managers to the training, and they could get some first-hand exposure to lean without starting a big program or making a big investment. I strongly believed that if I could get just a few people excited about lean, I could start a fire that wouldn't be put out.

Designing the implementation
Feingold: Countless articles have been written about implementing lean. Typically the first steps involve either appointing a change agent or performing an organizational readiness assessment.

A typical list of implementation steps could include:

Call the organization to action.

Perform a business assessment.

Conduct training or appoint a sensei to lead the effort.

Create a lean promotion function (i.e., an implementation officer and team).

Map the value streams to develop current and future states.

Begin kaizen events.

Implement new metrics to help people remain accountable for performance.

Expand lean disciplines throughout the enterprise and its suppliers.

 

Clearly, this would be a nonconventional implementation because it would be accomplished with only passive upper management support, at least at first.

Miller: My experience with a corporatewide model of lean implementation hadn't been positive. Although it's often possible to start such as effort, it takes much more effort to keep it going than it does to derail it. This is especially true in companies that are growing and not in a crisis.

The problem with the traditional model is that nothing much really happens (at least visibly) until the kaizen events. The alternative was a radical paradigm jump--simply start the process with a kaizen blitz. A quick, obvious victory would get the company excited about lean.

Feingold: Bob and I decided that the best tactic would be to include some senior managers in the critical initial training for the first kaizen event. This training included:

The principles of kaizen

Methods of discovering and eliminating muda

A detailed description of just-in-time concepts

 

The lecture would be immediately followed with a demonstration project, also known as a kaizen blitz.

Miller: I knew there was a lot of muda in our operation. I could tell by looking at productivity. We knew to the minute how much labor it should take to make our product. Why did we seem to have twice that amount of labor, working like salt-mine slaves, no less, and still have limited production? I didn't know exactly where the waste was or what to do about it.

To cap the difficulties, I was nearly alone in my views. Lean wasn't a language the company spoke. However I managed to get lean started, it was going to be without much visible support from upper management. I needed a big win, something that was of such obvious benefit that it couldn't be ignored or refuted.

The kaizen blitz
This led us to select our electrode line as the first project. There were some key features that made this area the best place to start.

We needed more capacity--about 25 percent more--and the floor space made it impossible to add people. The only apparent option open to us was to add a swing shift--never a pleasant prospect. However, if we couldn't expand in this area, it would eventually start to limit our business.

The capacity problems were real but not dire. We needed more soon but not immediately. This meant that there was time to try a kaizen event and still fall back on the more traditional method of increasing capacity--i.e., by buying it.

It was also budget time, and our budget, like that of many other organizations, was under some pressure. Although not experienced in lean, senior management wanted to see some innovative cost-cutting measures.

Feingold: Selecting the first kaizen target was crucial because this was the organization's pilot introduction to kaizen, and we wanted to start with a winner. The project would not only demonstrate the potential of lean manufacturing but would also be the training ground for a team of skilled implementers. After the pilot ended, the team would be disbanded, and the members could broadcast the skills and knowledge that they'd acquired.

A kaizen event is an excellent way to kick off a lean initiative. It encourages a spirit of excitement, innovation, commitment and accountability. It also demonstrates to everyone that rapid improvement is possible--without waiting for anyone else and without spending a lot of money.

In general, the process selected for improvement via a pilot project should satisfy five criteria:

Is the current process dysfunctional?

Will the customer benefit if this process is improved?

Will the benefit be visible?

Is there a high likelihood that the team can improve the process?

Are the people who will be involved good evangelists for the lean cause?

 

Bob Miller selected a team of eight people representing a cross-section of the company. The mix included managers, engineers and shop personnel. He had to work hard to engage the work force. Typical implementations begin with training in the "soft skills," such as conflict resolution, reaching consensus, leading change, managing diversity, goal setting, focusing on quality, team problem solving, listening skills, and running effective meetings and presentations. This team was trained only in the basics and jumped right into the project.

Miller : Although many lean efforts begin with soft-skill training, there are several factors arguing against it. First, the training tends to have a stale, canned feel to it. Everyone has been through more training on these topics than they can generally stomach, and if you tell people that they're going through them again, you'll usually get disinterest or half-hearted support at best. Second, the training requires resources--particularly time from the team, which often is already busy. Senior management, which sees little reward in the training, often resents the effort. Finally, the training imposes a time delay between beginning the effort and the first payoff. During the delay, things can go wrong--a critical player can leave the company, or an unrelated crisis can pop up.

Feingold : The kaizen event was a gratifying success for both Bob and me. The results are shown in the figure below. Seemingly impossible goals were easily achieved. In addition to learning the foundation and principles of kaizen , the team applied what it had learned about process improvement, the visual workplace, standardization, single-minute exchange of dies (SMED), one-piece flow, cell creation, time-and-motion study, 5S and kanban .

After the kaizen event
Miller: The results of our first kaizen in the electrode production line were amazingly successful. We'd achieved a series of goals that were exactly in line with what the strategic plan called for.

We'd significantly improved an area where it would be noticed, not just by the people in the work cell but also by everyone else, especially senior management.

We'd shown we could make a change, which dispelled some of the doubts and silenced the naysayers.

We'd sown the seeds of future improvement by training a core group of change adopters that could carry the method to other areas.

 

This success has paved the way for further kaizen events and wider acceptance of lean practices within the company. I knew I had struck home when my boss, the vice president of operations, asked at the end of the presentation on Friday of the first week, "So, where are you going to do the next one?"

Choosing where to do the next one was important and needed to be done quickly. Although we'd succeeded with our first kaizen, the initiative was still very fragile. A second success would go a long way toward consolidating our gains. All the areas needed improvement, but it was important that our second event build organizational support and further spread the ideas of lean, as well as improve the operation. Although I knew that eventually we'd have to convert some fairly resistant people, I felt that the second event was too soon to take on this task in earnest. The second event had to meet most of the criteria of the first: I needed another big win with some change adopters in an area visible to senior management. Eventually, we followed the electrode kaizen blitz with three more kaizen events.

My ultimate goal was (and is) to move away from kaizen events as our main lean implementation and incorporate the concepts as part of our daily work. I wanted Jerry's help, and this included helping me learn how to manage without him. Lean had to become something we could do for ourselves, without the special effort that a kaizen event entailed.

What can go wrong?
Feingold: The kaizen event is a terrific way to overcome organizational inertia. However, cultural barriers to change are difficult to eliminate, especially among middle managers. The typical middle manager enjoys the comforts of buffer inventory, undocumented and uncontrolled processes, and long production runs. On top of that we have the concept of entropy. It almost seems as if factories want to be screwed up. The strongest weapon against an improvement effort's collapse is for executives to frequently tour the factory. In our culture there's a strong desire to review factory performance after the fact in the comfort of the conference room. In excellent factories, when production problems occur, executives head to the production floor. In poorly run facilities, they go to the conference room and announce, "It's not my fault."

Continuous improvement can't be delegated. It's a principal role of the senior executive team. The kaizen blitz can either be the exciting beginning of tremendous performance gains or a complete waste of everyone's time if it isn't given sufficient follow up.

In this case senior management wasn't going to conduct these tours. It was up to Bob to devise a method to ensure continuous improvement.

Leading from the middle
Miller: The standard lean implementation paradigm is the top-down model. Clearly, we weren't following that plan, and to keep the momentum going, we had to take a different approach than the command-and-control method. My model for lean was much more like a grass-roots movement, and the goal was that the effort would be self-organizing and self-sustaining within my department at the very least. It's not that I don't care if the rest of the company gets lean--I would prefer it, but that wasn't my primary motivation in doing the work. It was most important that we gained the benefits of our efforts--i.e., easier work.

I've known people who've been frustrated by continually presenting to management a carefully planned case for a top-down lean implementation, only to have it dismissed as too costly or intrusive on the other priorities of the business. These people are often incredulous that what's so obvious to them isn't so clear to their bosses. However, senior managers aren't dumb or unenlightened. In most businesses, they're hard working, dedicated people under an enormous load of conflicting priorities. It's important to consider how a lean proposal looks from your boss's perspective.

Let's say you're a senior vice president or general manager, and the hotshot production manager walks into your office, telling you that you should drop everything and start implementing a lean initiative. Look at the huge benefits, says the hotshot: lower inventories, lower scrap and better labor utilization. All these are completely true--and totally beside the point. None of this has much effect on the current priorities of the business, and the one element that seems relevant--lower inventories--looks scary. The program requires a big up-front training investment and a lot of distraction at all levels in the organization as people attend this training. Benefits are six months or a year away, and the initiative requires a total realignment of business priorities.

What are you, as general manager, likely to do with this proposal? Consign it to the circular file, of course. Ninety-five percent of all the lean proposals for big, top-down, train-everyone-first, get-benefits-next-year programs will never be accepted. They don't fit the business priorities in all but a handful of cases.

If you want to do lean, you can. You don't have to wait. The results will be significant and worth the effort. But it won't happen by making a proposal to your boss for an expensive program that takes more of his time than yours. When I wanted the benefits of lean in my organization, I didn't ask my boss for $100,000 and a giant training program. I told him I was conducting a small experiment on one line that would take a week, and that I expected benefits at the end of the week. If none materialized, we weren't any worse off. Then I let the program speak for itself. Lean is much easier to sell this way. Before the event, lean looked like a fad program, but afterward the results were quite obvious.

Feingold: You can implement lean without your boss, but it would be even better if he or she supported you. If not, you can be rewarded for the improvements anyway. Don't implement lean for your boss's sake. Do it to improve your work life, get a better handle on your job, and make production faster, easier, safer and more fun.

About the authors
Jerry Feingold is a highly sought-after management consultant in the field of lean process improvement. He conducts work in the United States and Europe with a wide variety of companies, including consumer, commercial and medical product producers, food processors, financial service organizations and government contractors. The recently released book Getting Lean (WCM Associates, 2004) is the result of Feingold's many years of experience helping companies become more competitive. It contains specific proven valuable tools and secrets that will assist an enterprise to reach new levels of productivity and to improve continuously. Visit his Web site at www.continuousimprovements.com .

Bob Miller is director of advanced factory management at Advanced Bionics, a division of Boston Scientific. He has more than 24 years of manufacturing experience in various high-technology industries, including semiconductors, lasers and medical devices. Advanced Bionics is a manufacturer of state-of-the-art medical implants for the treatment of deafness, chronic pain and other conditions. Visit its Web site at www.advancedbionics.com .