Client tells Gemba: “We’re Wasting Our Money by Paying You”

Earlier this week I had a chance to join one of our consultants on a follow up visit to one of our clients. We were there for a Lean transformation progress check and to make training and kaizen project plans for 2006.
We reviewed their Lean manufacturing efforts so far and interviewed the managers and supervisors. We asked for their frank feedback and we got it. It’s not the first time in history that consultants have been told they were useless, but it’s been a while since I faced the heat.
One manager started off the conversations with a series of questions for us. “You started working for us in the beginning of 2004. So why did we lose money last year?” She was very unhappy, and she wanted answers.
She felt that everything we had done so far in the factory was, in her words, “common sense”. Her final assessment of the value of our kaizen consulting was blunt: “I think we’re wasting our money by paying you.”
It was tempting to defend ourselves, explain that the losses at her company would have been greater without the savings achieved through kaizen activity, and clarify the misunderstandings. But we bit our tongue and listened. As a result I think she left the meeting knowing she had been heard. We also learned some valuable things.
This manager had been with the company for 8 years. She had many insights into things that weren’t working at her company in terms of communication and information flow. How had we missed her? Why hadn’t she spoken up a year ago? Why hadn’t we sought her input? How had we failed to address her concerns earlier in the process? These are questions we’ll resolve quickly.
She was a case in point about the need to improve communication at her company. Clearly we had failed to make it clear to all corners of the company what the kaizen activity was doing for the company, what it was not going to do, and what was coming next.
This company has lost money for the last two years, despite our Lean manufacturing efforts. This company is in a very seasonal business. They have some of the typical challenges of a small family owned business. In terms of operations and costs they have run a fairly tight ship, and we took on the project knowing there were no “gold mines” of waste that would yield huge bottom-line results right away. While we had told the owners this, not everyone had gotten this message.
Culture change almost always lags behind physical changes in a Lean transformation, except in cases where organizations focuses the first phase of their Lean transformation in education, communication and organizational development. It’s tempting to chase cost reductions, at the expense of doing a thorough job of building a kaizen culture. This is doubly true when the business is losing money.
There is a lot of work to do but this company is well on their way to a Lean Enterprise. With managers like this woman who care deeply about the company and who have the courage to face down ‘big city’ consultants and tell them they are useless, I think they will succeed.