You’re Good When You Think You’re Bad

By Kevin Meyer

Well over a decade ago I created my first lean enterprise assessment, just as a tool to help me understand gaps in my organization.  I’m generally loathe to use such tools as they are often misinterpreted, gamed, or whatnot – but so be it.  It’s a tool and just a tool.  Coincidentally that first assessment tried to measure the use of lean tools, which led us down the toolhead path – and smack into a wall.  We learned our lesson, and began asking “why” and then “how” before choosing the appropriate tool for the problem.

Over time that assessment morphed into something that tries to measure behaviors and perspectives, not tools.  It’s fairly lengthy, but still very well-received.  And scary, as it is virtually impossible to receive a high score unless you have implemented lean from your suppliers through to your customers, and truly created a culture of continuous improvement.  There are forty questions in four sections: respect for people and community, creating customer value, leadership and alignment, and accountability and results.

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But my point isn’t to pander those tools.  Along the way, both in my organizations and in the hundreds of others that have used the assessment, I noticed a common trend:

  • First assessment: high score
  • Second assessment (generally 1 to 2 years later): much lower score
  • Third assessment: static to even lower score

Most people wouldn’t consider that to be progress.  How can you get worse?  But think about what’s happening.  And that’s fundamentally why the assessment is just a tool – it helps you prioritize areas to work on.  Nothing more.

Before starting down the lean journey, most organizations think they’re pretty good.  Inventory?  Helps buffer issues obviously caused by suppliers and anyone except ourselves.  Obviously.  Waste?  Comes with the territory because our products and processes are more complex, different, inherently unstable, “artsy,” etc. (pick one).  People?  Can’t be trusted.

So they look at the assessment, especially the first one that didn’t try to point out such fallacious fantasies (!), and skew it higher.  In their own minds.  Or consider it an impossible utopia.

Then, if they have a solid lean leader, they start to learn.  They visit other real lean organizations, attend seminars, workshops, conferences, and perhaps even training programs by the likes of Gemba Academy.  And they start to realize how far down the totem pole they are.  That’s fine, as long as they start to improve.

As they learn, they discover even more areas for improvement.  As they drain the inventory swamp they uncover more problems.  As they train their people – and learn to respect their brains – more opportunities arise.  And they feel even worse.

They try a lot of tools.  Perhaps judiciously, but probably without a lot of forethought.  Many of those tools fail – but they were tried.  And over time as appropriate problems and opportunities present themselves, they remember and apply them again with success.

Nearly a decade later the organization sometimes feels horrible – almost like a failure.  There are so many issues, so many problems, so many opportunities.  So many tools have been tried and abandoned.  But let me tell you about one such organization – and I know because it was the one I ran for over eight years, and I’m damn proud of those people.

That organization trains on lean, has a solid 5S program, uses manual and visual systems to manage production across three facilities instead of shop floor MRP, has reduced lead times by 90%, has morning standup meetings in all key departments, is rated best-in-class for quality by its major customers, and outcompetes its “low cost country” competitors – on price and quality – from the not-so-cheap state of California.  TWI is used extensively, autonomous teams have been deployed, and ridiculous budgeting processes have been eliminated.  It hosts tours and workshops by AME, local and state business groups, and in all cases there’s a big “wow!”  It was even successful enough that it built a new 120,000 sq ft facility – in California in the middle of a recession no less – that leverages massive reconfigurability concepts.

But in their minds, they have so, so far to go.  The journey seems to get longer and longer.  They don’t want to apply for prizes or awards – there just isn’t the time because there are so many issues to work on.  Certifications?  A rainbow of belts?  Nowhere.

The more you learn and the more you improve, the more you understand how far away perfection really is.  The depression of excellence?  Until you remember those days long ago, when you smugly thought you were great.

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4 Comments

  1. Jon Miller

    July 10, 2015 - 9:51 am

    Great article Kevin.
    What makes people feel bad about lower scores is that they think they are getting worse. In fact, they are getting better at seeing reality and how much better they could be (how far they are from truly lean). That is something people should feel good about, and perhaps something that should be part of the assessment? The first level could be that they take the assessment criteria as-is and are happy to score high, while at the more advanced levels of understanding, they are both getting tougher on how they score as well as tightening up the criteria.

  2. Randy Siever

    July 14, 2015 - 9:48 am

    I think the two organizational traits you’re describing here are humility and wisdom. You have to be humble enough to realize there could be a better way, and through improving, you learn that there are many more iterations to go. Not the most exciting things to celebrate, but I’m guessing most long-term success stories share these traits. Of course, I’m sure they’d all be too humble to admit it. . .

  3. Michael Bremer

    July 14, 2015 - 2:45 pm

    Good point about effective assessments Kevin. The whole idea is about ‘learning to more effectively SEE improvement opportunities.’ The first time you do it, as you suggest, there is a natural tendency to see how HIGH you can score. If people stay with it, they begin to see more deeply. I noticed some of this same conundrum even when we do assessments for our consortium member companies in the Chicago area. The first time we go through, we are still learning about the plant/facility/company. And you give it a reasonable score. The following year, even though they improved, they often get a similar score…simply because we and they see more. Randy’s comments about humility and wisdom are also good points.