Five Questions to Ask When You Hear "We're too busy for Lean"

How many times have you heard “We’re too busy for Lean” from managers and professionals in your organization? How do you respond? How do you know whether they are in fact too busy? When it is true, what do you do to get them involved?
Here are five questions to ask when you hear, “We’re too busy for Lean.”
1. Is the Lean work a replacement to the old work, or just additional work? Ideally Lean activities like daily 5S should replace activities like searching and arranging. Searching is not work, it is waste. By doing 5S for a few minutes throughout the day, it replaces searching activity. If it does not, it may be “show Lean” and not practical 5S. Another example is the meetings held on the gemba to check the visual boards and status of daily work or improvement projects. If the daily gemba walk is in addition to the production status meeting, question why the production meeting can’t be held on the gemba, closer to the facts.
2. Is their current workload reasonable? If the manager is already in a constant fire-fighting mode, asking them to take on yet another project in the promise that it will make their life easier is like asking for spiritual enlightenment by reading a book. Enlightenment takes practice and experience, or a thought-changing event. A kaizen event can be such a thought-changing experience. A good approach in the case of the overburdened fire-fighting manager is to sponsor a kaizen event in their process to stabilize their daily work and remove the overburden and variability. They will see the practical value of kaizen and also find time to support Lean.
3. How practical is the Lean training? While there is a minimum of Lean awareness training needed at the beginning of a Lean transformation to establish what and why, the vast majority of training should be practical in nature, focusing on what and how. When people are too busy to participate in a training class, consider how you can make the class more attractive by giving the learner new skills to solve specific problems they have in their work. If 80% of the training is not focused on applying ideas to tools to solve their problems, it is not practical enough for the busy manager.
4. What is the standard work for this person who is too busy for Lean? If they are a manager, often there is no standard work. So in Lean terms it is impossible to determine whether they are too busy or not. There is no baseline for comparison or improvement, no measurement of net output per hour or per day. A good starting point in setting the standard work for managers is to ask who are the customers they serve, and what output these customers require. Just answering those questions along can be eye-opening, identifying non value added work that can be eliminated immediately.
5. How much Lean could this person have done in the time it took to discuss and decide that they were too busy to do Lean? Lots. Think of the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Dashing from one busy project review or status meeting like a hare, people get done far less than they think, while the tortoise that takes a moment to do a little kaizen each day finds they have more time in a day than they imaged. In Japan there is an expression says “cranes live for one thousand years, turtles for ten thousand years.” Do turtles take the long view because they live long, or do they live long because they take the long view?

3 Comments

  1. Alberto

    December 7, 2007 - 9:55 am

    First Off, i’m really surprised that there has been no replies to this post yet, given the number of times that lean managers or lean associates have to deal with this kind of problem. which in my case i don’t even want to remember.
    I specially agree on first and last questions because they really leave no place to keep discussing the subject.
    Thanks for the Tips.

  2. Philip Knowles

    April 29, 2008 - 5:11 am

    I’m pretty new with lean at my job I got 2 months after graduating from school. #1 and 3 hit home hard.
    For #1, it’s almost like a very boring dog show. People show up, zone out, and enjoy the 15 minute break. Now sometimes there’s a lot of complaining, and some comforting words from the managers, but I think they should be focusing on preventing these huge fights before it gets there by encouraging the workers to make suggestions, giving the resources to do minor fixes/maintenance before the machine breaks, etc.
    #3….yeah, so i’m an intern thrown into the mix of lean with no formal training. I’m very resistant to it since gatech stuffed EOQ and 6-sig down our throats. But I’m trying my best to learn as quickly about lean and how it applies to my company. It’s tough. It’s doubly difficult when the workers don’t even know what lean is. I don’t think they need a degree or super formal training, but they do need a basic run down and the tool kits in place to make things work. Without this very basic step, lean is more like management using bulldozers to heard the workers into lean whether they like it or not, and in most cases they don’t. I fear that’s going to be a wound that’s going to fester until something bad happens 🙁

  3. Troy

    July 1, 2008 - 4:02 pm

    As for point 4 try implementing a working menu for all leaders. This acts as a type of standard work which should be displayed publicly and will show exactly what value added work is scheduled each day and what proportion of that content is actually being achieved and what proportion is omitted. Like with all Lean efforts it is a new way of working and may take a while to bolster as a culture in the business but if the heirarchy are behind the Lean effort they will participate, particularly if they have been involved in the production of the document and therefore have a vested interest in it.