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Changing to Lean, Part 5

Published: Monday, July 7, 2008 - 20:51

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.

Why do we do lean? We often get so focused on making improvements that we forget why we are making improvements. It becomes a “make an improvement for improvement’s sake” mentality. We shouldn’t forget the guiding principles of our actions, meeting customer needs (internal, external, shareholders, and community) and respect for people. The improvements should be following the rules in use:

  1. Highly-defined activities.
  2. Clear and binary customer/supplier connections.
  3. Simple and direct flowpaths.
  4. Continuous improvement using the scientific method.

Meeting customer needs
Our motivation should always be to meet a customer’s expectation. At one time, there was a definition of quality that can be summarized as make exactly what the customer wants. Why should I make a watch that is water-resistant to depths of 300 feet, when my target customer will never use the watch in more than a sink full of dishes? How much extra is that customer willing to pay for a feature they don’t see as value-added?

Seeing the value to our end-use customer and shareholders has never been difficult. However, seeing the value to our internal customers is the most overlooked aspect of lean in modern history. What value-added features do our employees desire? We can all quote psychology books and label the basic needs, but what do our employees really want? Is the health care system desirable? Is a wellness plan offered? Is there a pension, retirement, or investment plan that is easy to understand and truly desirable? Are people proud to say they work for the company?

You may think you know the answers to some of the above questions. You may even know that some answers you are given are only lip service. The real question is what are you doing about those answers? How does the workforce respond when they get a 2-percent salary increase and the executive gets millions in salary and bonuses? I recall seeing a newspaper headline taped to a worker’s bench announcing the million-dollar bonus two corporate presidents received when two companies merged. Meanwhile, operator pay was stabilized to bring the two companies together.

The last customer, our community, is also neglected on a regular basis. In Part 3 of this series of articles, Toyota’s mission statement was quoted and reviewed. If we have no plans to give back to our community, why would any community want us to set up shop? Providing jobs is no longer the only necessary commitment from a business looking to relocate. Questions have to be answered here also such as: What are we bringing to the community? How are we making it safer for our children? What future benefits will our company provide? Over time, will we be considered an asset or a liability to our community?

Respect for people—Beware the foxes
One of my favorite reminders comes from a mentor and friend: there are three types of lean participants—rabbits, turtles, and foxes. It is our job as lean leaders to recognize and handle each accordingly.

Those who buy in and hit the ground running. Rabbits see immediate benefit from lean and want to get started yesterday. With a little education on the tools and concepts, they’re ready to lead the rest of the facility on this journey. The challenge they present is keeping them motivated and moving forward. If improvements don't come fast enough, they'll loose focus. Then you have wild rabbits running all over the farm. However, they can be fantastic assistance in the early phases of your project, adding necessary fuel to the fire.

Those who don't buy in for a long time. However, when they’re converted, turtles are often more valuable than rabbits. They’re often your sustain agents, where rabbits are your change agents. The challenge they present isn’t to judge them too early (often as foxes). Keep showing them results until they convert. Once they convert, they will often be your staunchest supporters. They provide excellent leaders [at times called lend-forwards] to other areas of the facility that may be slow to convert. Traditionally, they’re also indirect leaders, those to whom others quietly look for direction.

Those who talk like they buy in, but their actions will (eventually) give them away as nonbelievers. These rascals can either make decisions that countermand lean or they can be so bold as to speak out against lean to the lower ranks (behind your back), destroying any culture you attempt to build. Foxes are difficult to convert and are often moved to better-fitting positions or choose to move into a different career.

There’s one other significant problem with foxes; some are sleeper foxes. Think of someone hypnotized who doesn’t remember doing something. These sleepers are often making unlean decisions daily and don’t realize what they’re doing is counter-productive. Some decisions are so natural that we don’t really see how negatively they affect the cultural change potential.

For lean leaders, it’s not enough merely to be a good leader, but to recognize who in your facility—or more importantly, who above you—is a leader and who’s a fox. It’s all about respect for people. You may have it, but if others in leadership positions don’t, they can destroy your lean implementation, no matter how good your leadership. That’s why Toyota is so selective in their hiring process. They’re looking for people who fit the mold for their style of leadership.

There’s no magic pill for successfully implementing 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 fail, becoming the flavor of the week that everyone knew wouldn’t last.

“Why not make the work easier and more interesting so that people don’t have to sweat? The Toyota style is not to create results by working hard. It’s a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity.

“People don’t go to Toyota to work, they go there to think” —Taiichi Ohno

Previous articles in this series:
Part 1: Roll-out (-through, -by, -over)
Part 2: No magic pill
Part 3: Lean vs. L.A.M.E.
Part 4: Process improvement—where do we start?

About the author
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.


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