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Mike Thelen

Quality Insider

Changing to Lean, Part 1

Roll-out (-through, -by, -over)

Published: Monday, February 11, 2008 - 22:00

As is the case with any lean implementation in a traditional environment, culture change is the most difficult obstacle to success. A company can hire consultants, develop work teams, and begin lean initiatives, but if it only talks the talk, the initiative soon becomes just talk.

The transformation to a lean enterprise isn’t easy. Senior management, while being driven by the labor force, must lead the process. More importantly, employees between these two levels must focus on using the tools and training provided on a consistent, daily basis to enforce the concept of culture change. They’re truly the change agents.

This is a weakness in many implementations. Department supervisors and managers receive useful training, yet fail to transfer the knowledge to real-work events. The causes for this may be numerous and valid, but they can’t be accepted. Why does this happen? Can it be prevented?

Why does this happen?
One reason is those people are the change agents and often don’t have time to use the implementation tools, because they’re always too busy. Routinely, floor management spends the majority of time looking for lost or delayed products. When they find the problem, they can’t take the time to determine the root cause of the problem. Once one fire is put out, another one develops. They repeat this cycle day in and day out.

Another cause for failure is that potential change agents are being held to metrics that don’t mesh with lean initiatives. When the company begins a lean initiative, the process begins on the manufacturing floor, rather than in the boardroom. A manager is evaluated on short-term, process-based metrics, while trying to create long-term, customer-based results. During the review process, the manager is penalized for failure to achieve the former, while being unrewarded for achieving gains to the latter.

Direct report interaction, or, more accurately, forced direct report interaction can, also stall change agents. One of the most routine—and most difficult—roles of the manager is that of an enforcer. Requiring or empowering direct reports to follow specific instructions, change their work habits, or even support change initiatives requires a loosening of control, while also forcing accountability as well as responsibility. This is made more challenging to overcome in companies where change has often been viewed as the fad or “flavor of the month” mentality.

Companies may also have incidents where the potential change agents are resistant to change. They may claim hot issues or employee evaluations hold them back, when those are simply viable alternatives to the true root cause. Change agents feel they have the most to lose in a lean enterprise. They have become accustomed to the role of “firefighters” or “heroes,” but in a lean environment this role loses its meaning. They’re no longer as value-added as they once were.

Can it be prevented?
To become lean, a company must provide its change agents with the opportunity to learn and use the tools. Change agents need the training to feel comfortable with the tools. Some people learn in a classroom, some prefer outside seminars, some learn only by doing. Some others need combinations of these. Each potential change agent has a unique learning curve. Developing a training curriculum at the start of a lean initiative allows the change agents to commit to and prepare for the company’s lean journey. A company’s willingness to provide potential agents with the training they desire will also solidify the significance of transitioning to a lean enterprise.

In addition, senior management must show support of the use of lean tools for each problem that arises on a daily basis. If it’s acceptable to disregard the tools when dealing with hot or rush product, the significance of the tools is diminished and they’re easier to bypass on a regular basis. Completing a problem, cause, solution, action, measure process (PCSAM), and 5-whys analysis for each item on a hot sheet will reduce the number and frequency of items labeled hot. The same principle can be applied to customer complaints, ISO 9001 compliance deficiencies, equipment breakdowns, or virtually all levels of a business system.

The change agents must also be provided with a coach who can, at least initially, guide them through the process of using individual lean tools and initiatives through completion. Because it can be difficult to lead an initiative without experience, change agents often need a coach, whether they openly discuss or quietly ignore the need for assistance. The coach guides and assists in training and direction, giving the change agent support during difficult phases of a project. The coach can be extremely valuable when faced with objections from direct reports, as well as superiors. She or he can also help convert a resistant change agent by helping resolve issues one-on-one, while showing the dramatic results that can be attained.

Senior management must be willing to take the action recommended as part of the PCSAM evaluation. Little can stall a lean initiative more effectively than having change agents and direct labor follow the process and determine an effective solution, only to have senior management refuse to take action (either without justification or due to short-term goal conflicts). An instance where one improvement action is refused simply due to the short lead time between this action and its predecessor will also undermine the lean initiative, as the importance of continuous improvement will be dismissed. Senior management must also empower the change agent (or team) to make changes, and trust that the correct decisions will be made. Failure to provide support of decisions, reached through the effective use of training and tools, will diminish the commitment to lean initiatives.

Last, the company as a whole must maintain a true long-term focus for all activities. Short-term goals should be sacrificed for long-term gain, not vice-versa. Many companies struggle with this as quarterly reports affect stock price, dividends, and other financial success measures. Plants transitioning to lean seldom achieve success in less than five to 10 years. Companies not capable of making that long-term commitment should review alternatives to lean.

There’s no magic pill for lean initiatives. The lean process requires time, commitment, and determination. Companies that cannot envision the long-term commitment to lean, and only use the tools for short-term gain, will achieve some limited success. However, without the culture supporting those tools, the lean initiative will become the flavor of the week that everyone knew would not last.

As Jeffrey Liker advises in The Toyota Way (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2004), “...[I]f you are not the CEO, and top management is interested only in short-term financial results..., 1. Find greener pastures..., 2. Participate in playing the game of applying tools for short-term gains and hope you share..., 3. Work to build a successful lean model and educate top management by blowing them away with exceptional results.”


About The Author

Mike Thelen’s picture

Mike Thelen

Mike Thelen is the lean facilitator at Aberdeen, South Dakota-based Hub City Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit Corp. in Beloit, Wisconsin. He has led lean initiatives in positions from front-line supervisor to system coordinator in various corporations since 2001.