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Bruce Hamilton


Consult With Humility

Lean guru? Let’s get real.

Published: Wednesday, August 17, 2016 - 14:34

A friend and colleague remarked to me that “the lean market has become mature,” implying a depth and breadth of lean understanding in industry that I have rarely seen myself.

Standardized work, for example, almost always looks like time setting to me, an occasional and cursory exercise by industrial engineers to shave seconds from a static work sequence to reduce apparent labor costs. Workers are not even asked to participate. In those instances where a standard work chart is actually posted, it’s rarely up to date; usually it’s from a one-time effort of a long-past kaizen event.

One manager challenged me recently. “Our workers don’t need that; they know their jobs very well,” he claimed—a comment that exposed his misunderstanding of standardized work on several levels. When we then watched the work and compared it to the standardized work chart posted next to the worker, it became apparent pretty quickly that there was an extra person in process, that standard work in process was ignored, and that takt time represented a minimum value.

“The chart is really not for the workers; it’s for you,” I replied. “Do you see why? Can you see what’s happening?”

Unfortunately, the technique that Taiichi Ohno declared to be the foundation for continuous improvement is too often just another piece of lean visual pollution. This is the floor condition I observe at many sites: not mature, not even immature lean production. More like 40 years of standing still, parroting tools without understanding either the details or the big picture. Doing the same thing over and over, as they say, and expecting different results.

On the other hand, we consultants seem to be getting smarter and smarter all the time. We’ve become experts, senseis, masters, mentors, coaches, and even gurus and rock stars. We have belts of many colors and framed certificates to show for it.

I wrote a column last year about us pundits, describing an experience I had with consultant braggadocio 25 years ago. Just since last year, however, the proliferation of boastful claims made by us pundits seems to have saturated the internet, most of it lean spam. Some days I think there are more pundits than practitioners. And while I’m a tad skeptical about the real Toyota Production System (TPS) experience claimed on many websites, this lean market has no doubt matured from a selling standpoint.

Thanks to the internet, selling lean has become a battle of keywords and search engine optimization (a topic for a later column.) It’s important to be a web celebrity in this new marketing game, but that does not necessarily imply excellence. I admit, I’m playing the game; the Old Lean Dude blog is an example. Without social media, it would be not possible to reach our customers.

“You’re famous; you’re the Toast Guy,” customers tell me.

“No, the video may be famous, but not me,” I respond. “I’m a student of TPS.” Along the way, I try to co-learn with my customers and associates. Continuous improvement and continuous learning, after all, are two sides of the same coin. But “lean guru?” Let’s get real. There might be a few of those around, but for most us, it’s just a sales pitch, a key word to drive traffic to our sites.

With all of the marketing hype and ever-more-superlative descriptions of consulting experience and talent, my question is: Why are so few organizations continuously improving? Why, for example, do so few managers even understand the how-to or why of standardized work? Where’s the beef?

One customer confided in me that after three lackluster years of lean implementation working with a well-known consulting firm, he asked the question: “Why after the initial wave of improvement are we not able to sustain the gains?”

“Because your employees are not as talented as our consultants,” the lead consultant replied. Whether this arrogance is just marketing hype or whether we actually believe it, if lean consultants are providing value only to themselves and not to their customers, that is the ultimate hypocrisy.

Right after I became a consultant 17 years ago, a valued teacher and long-time TPS practitioner from Toyota agreed to discuss my decision with me. He is one of only a few persons I have met during the last 30 years who might be worthy of the claims of consulting excellence that appear daily on the web, although he would not use those words himself. “Mr. O, I love continuous improvement and problem solving, but many times I have trouble understanding a problem and cannot see the solution,” I confided.

Mr. O smiled, and shook his head. “Yes, I know exactly what you mean,” he replied, to my amazement. “I have that problem, too.” That was all he needed to say.

Teach what you know, but don’t pretend to teach what you don’t. Always be a student.

The answer to the “Where’s the beef?” question I think is: Consult with humility. If you are a consultant, internal or external, can you be vulnerable, or must you pretend always to be the guru? Share a story.


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.


Lean support not rewarded


Just had lunch with a past employee of a company that wanted so badly to be "Lean". The company did many things right but the biggest challenge they had was not rewarding employee involvement.

The person I had lunch with created a great production cell with my help. Everytime I went to the area he was explaining to me how he had improved the process since yesterday. He was so excited he could hardly contain himself.

When the company had a reduction in force because of industry demand changes this person was one of the first to go. His enthusiam for improvement was not really considered in the decision. Unfortunately I believe this is more common in industry that not.

Great article on what lean really is and how rarely it is to find a successfull implementation.