For a Culture of Innovation, Turn Board Meetings into Cardboard Meetings

Not long ago a friend of mine from a compay not too far away called me for advice (hopefully that is vague enough provides enough plausible deniability for him and/or her). My friend was told to remove a large quantity of cardboard from the factory in advance of a visit by some executives.

This company has a large capital expenditure budget. They use lean methods extensively in order to make good decisions on capital investments. This involves many production preparation process (3P) workshops and a lot of full-size cardboard mockups and prototypes of equipment and factory layouts. The benefit of this approach is that people can walk through a realistic, life-size, physical simulation of the new process. This allows them identifying where the engineers or equipment manufacturers may have forgotten necessary things or added that are not needed by the people doing the work day to day in that process. Adjustments can be made to the cardboard process, measured and converted to a final drawing. This method of finding process design problems in the earliest stages saves them millions.

My friend’s frustration related to the fact that a group of executives were flying in and his factory was to host their board meeting. He and/or she was asked to remove all of the full-scale cardboard production lines from the shop floor in advance the meeting. The executives would likely want a plant tour, and the cardboard didn’t look professional enough. I joked that these executives need to attend fewer board meetings and walk through more cardboard meetings. My friend didn’t laugh. Perhaps it was no joke.

It’s commendable that this leadership team made the effort to travel to one of their plants to have their meeting, rather than have it in a board room atop a tower in some downtown headquarters. Whenever board members have the time to actually walk through a gemba, why not leave the cardboard there? The site leadership clearly did not see the beauty of cardboard engineering, although they loved the results of it. That is a sign of a weak lean culture, failing to see that this type of quick, low-cost, on-the-job innovation will keep the company vital. This type of substance-over-style appreciation needs to start at the very top, at the executive level. The point is not necessarily to make 3D strategic plans our of cardboard, although that may be fun. Some things lend themselves better to cardboard meetings than others such as designing physical things, products, buildings or equipment.

Cardboard meetings are no more about the corrugated paper than board meetings are about the plank of wood at which the directors sit and cogitate. Rather, cardboard meetings are about the habits of thinking that the cardboard represents. This includes concepts common to lean and agile innovation, such as respecting and engaging the people who do the work, spinning the build measure learn cycle frequently, using our wits before our wallets whenever possible, and reaching for a 60% solution today instead of delaying for perfection.

If my friend were to have a future opportunity to explain this to the leader demanding removal of the cardboard, and the leader grasped the point, that would be an encouraging sign for the long-term health of lean and process innovation for that company. On the other hand if these ideas fell on deaf ears, or worse, if the culture didn’t allow this type of speaking truth to power, it might be better for my friend not to hitch his and/or her career prospects to that company’s wagon.

2 Comments

  1. Owen Berkeley-Hill

    November 8, 2016 - 11:05 am
    Reply

    “My friend was told to remove a large quantity of cardboard from the factory in advance of a visit by some executives.
    This company has a large capital expenditure budget. They use lean methods extensively in order to make good decisions on capital investments.”

    I can remember such scenes during my early days getting to know Lean two decades ago.

    Don’t you find it sad that it’s over a quarter of a century since the term “lean” was coined, and that the vast majority of “executives” still don’t get it. Is the Lean movement flogging a dead horse, one of its own making? If Lean has not become the norm in a quarter of a century, when will it?

    The understanding of Lean varies from that of the “how” merchants (people who don’t want their brains hurting through tackling the whys), who only want to apply the Toyota tool box, to those who see it as an improvement methodology of last choice when things go seriously pear shaped. It is neither. For me, Lean is perhaps the most significant advance in our understanding of how a good leader should think, believe, act and behave, and behave in what a Master Coach from Toyota described as a “consistent and congruent manner”; to do so in order to develop a flexible and motivated workforce.

    This may sound like the throwing down of the gauntlet and perhaps it is: if the leadership of an organisation does not have a visceral understanding of Lean and is not acting and behaving in a Lean way then that organisation is not serious about Lean and is just dabbling at the fringes. (I do not doubt your friend’s sincerity but she/he is flogging a dead horse because all the good work he/she has done will unravel as soon as the next new broom is appointed.)

    To survive, Lean must barge, kick, gouge, bite and punch its way from the margins to the heart of leadership education. It was academia which coined the term, it is academia which now ignores Lean when it comes to educating tomorrow’s leaders.

  2. Jon

    November 9, 2016 - 9:40 pm
    Reply

    Hi Owen
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment as always. Yes, it is indeed a pity that something so potentially positive is too often reduced to just another value-extraction tool by short-sighted leaders. Part of the cause for this is how such leaders are motivated – by short term financial return, rather than long-term responsibility, profit balanced with social impact, etc. While Japan is by NO means perfect in this regard, their society and industrial policy traditionally balanced this better, thus it was possible for a healthier form of “lean” to mature there. Getting harder for them also now. We can’t there by trying to fix lean, or the people who misuse lean we need to examine and fix the larger system that these things part of.

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