Lean ManufacturingTips for Lean Managers

The Power of U

By Jon Miller Updated on May 19th, 2017

My Japanese teachers often spoke about making processes flow “like a single brushstroke”. It was and still is a phrase difficult to translate. Often I would mimic picking up a calligraphy brush and sweeping it in a u-shape to demonstrate to others what the our sensei was trying to convey. To explain in a few words, the process should move continuously and smoothly as a brushstroke, not leaving the paper until the motion was complete, and when the brush returns to the original position the shape should be simple and elegant. When we design work as repetitive cycles that are easy to perform at a high value-added content, we experience this calligraphy brushstroke-thing the sensei talked about.

U shaped cells
At a nuts-and-bolts level, the u-shaped cell we see in factories, warehouses, and increasingly in transactional environments is an example of the power of the u-shape. Most students of lean manufacturing will have encountered the maxim that the workplace should be designed for “u-shaped” flow. There are many reasons for this, including having a counterclockwise flow instead of linear flow, establishing a clear and single “in” and “out” area for the connected processes, removing barriers to flow between the processes on the inside of the U, and allowing easy access for material logistics and equipment maintenance.

The fact that the u-shape brings people together is by far the most important factor, of which more here.

Change management U shape
Many lean implementations have struggled or been scuttled due to resistance to change. Even before stepping foot into a kaizen event, much less a full-blown lean transformation, people should be made aware that change is painful and that there is a natural human resistance that comes with this. Ideally a smooth change management transition would go from awareness of why the change is needed to desire to support and be engaged in the change, followed by an understanding of how and the skills and abilities to change, resulting in behaviors to commit and sustain the changes.
But this rarely happens without active upfront planning or massive downstream intervention. One recipe for effective change by John Kotter suggests an eight-step strategy for change management:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a vision for the change
  4. Communicate the change vision
  5. Empower everyone to act on the vision
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change
  8. Set the new ways as part of the culture

This broad-based prescription for change management is only as effective as the speed at which each person goes through their personal change curve, beginning with the guiding coalition in step 2 above.

This 4-stage u-shape personal change curve is based on the five stage Kubler Ross model on the transition people go through when they are grieving some personal loss. It’s worth acknowledging where people stand and spending the time and effort to get people from stage 1 to 2 to 3 as quickly as possible. Until they are on the right side of the center line people are not adding momentum to the change effort but in fact they are putting on the brakes.

The four stages of competence
Even after people are in stage 3 of the personal change curve and open to exploration and learning, we are not out of the proverbial woods. As people emerge from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, they may experience another sense of loss, whether it be of power, self image, respect or control. One of the challenges with lean is that it requires leaders to learn a lot. It would be easy if all they needed to learn were Japanese words, formulas, and how particular problem solving tools are used; instead we need them to learn new behaviors. There is a classic u-shaped learning curve that in some ways parallels the personal change curve above:

1. Unconscious incompetence. The leader does not understands or know how to support the change or demonstrate the appropriate behaviors, and also does not recognizes this inability. As a result, they may not have a desire to address it.

2. Conscious incompetence. Though still unable to do what is needed, the individual recognizes this deficit. Only with learning, practice and effort can people exit this phase.

3. Conscious competence. The leader understands how to do what is needed, but can only do so through a great deal of consciousness effort. Most likely coaxing, encouragement and audits are needed to pass through this phase.

4. Unconscious competence. The leader has sufficient practice that the new behavior becomes second nature. They do what is needed without thinking most or all of the time. When enough people do and teach this to others, it has become part of the culture.

Understanding and knowing what these lean leadership behaviors are in itself used to be a challenge but increasingly there is a consensus on what these are, so ignorance is no excuse.

Bonus: Theory U
First there was theory X, then theory Y and now theory U. MIT lecturer C. Otto Scharmer has written a book on his approach to leadership called Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges.

At a glance the content looks good, with some notable commonalities to lean thinking:

  1. Build common intent: harmony, consensus, and listening to customers and stakeholders
  2. Observe, observe, observe: go see, gemba focus, keep an open mind
  3. Connect to the source: not so sure about this one. perhaps reflection and hansei
  4. Prototype the new: very much in line with experimenting and the hands-dirty aspect of lean
  5. Embody the new in the ecosystem: the whole systems focus is a lean-friendly message

Theory U promises to encourage you to “step into the emerging future”. Like change, the future is something that happens whether we accept it or not, so being aware and ready in advance is surely a good thing. I will have to learn more about Theory U and where it’s going.

What is this power of U that attracts so many ideas to it?


  1. Yildiz Biner

    July 8, 2009 - 7:17 pm

    “What is this power of U that attracts so many ideas to it?”
    U knows the answer. 🙂

  2. John Santomer

    July 8, 2009 - 11:20 pm

    Ohh Jon,
    I’m not one to speculate on this. I’d probably know if I had a high iron supplement intake. But hey, this blog is surely a magnet to pull your wits to the “right places”…
    Maybe a follow write up on how to decrease the trough of the curve is forth coming? That would be really helpful in completing the circle of change. Perhaps another write up like a list to tackle the various human psyche on moving forward and out of the bottom curve in the shortest possible and “non-detrimental to ones career” kinda way? Remember, we are dealing with “Leaders” here…emphasis on “Leaders”.;-)

  3. Mike

    July 9, 2009 - 6:17 am

    Great post and much to mull over. I spent a long time in a Japanese manufacturing company and never once saw a counter clockwise flow. All cells were built with a clockwise flow and it seemed very natural to me. I worked as an operator in several of these cells and never found it to be “unnatural,” as the atheletes claimed. Additionally, the company also began designing fully automated cells in a U-shape, which was unfortunate. The main reason was so the operators could have a faster response time within the cell–less distance to travel–but management always put some kind of (usually unrelated) manual process in the middle of the U so the operators could be “productive” running this manual process while they paid attention to their automatic cell. This completely violated the respect for people pillar of lean, in my book.

  4. Jon Miller

    July 9, 2009 - 8:25 am

    Hi Mike,
    At some level the counterclockwise flow doesn’t matter. I chuckled at an aircraft wing manufacturing process that was designed by some lean people to be in a u-shape, counterclockwise flow, when the wing barely moved a few feet day to day. Counterclockwise flow makes sense when there is repetition at a reasonable frequency and the left eye / right brain spatial processing becomes more important.
    It’s unfortunate that management tried to fill time with unrelated work. It doesn’t sound like a very respectful use of labor. I have seen it done when the process was very stable and the operator was able to help perform a task for an adjoining process, but it complicates standardized work and introduces quality risks.

  5. Brian Buck

    July 9, 2009 - 11:31 am

    Brilliant post Jon. I love the constant “U” theme brought together at the end with a magnet. The caligigraphy lesson is powerful too.
    Your blog is consistently insightful and educational. I truly appreciate all of the work you put into this site for the entire Lean community.

  6. Sharma

    July 14, 2009 - 4:05 am

    Dear Jon,
    I have just one word for you – you are AWESOME! Thanks for enriching the readers. One thing I admire about you compared to John Shook’ website is that your articles are short, reader friendly and easy to understand.(NOTE : I have great respect for John Shook).
    Another point I would like to stress that whenever I come across most of the management theories and principles I conclude :
    1)”Oh, come on, that’s already covered under TPS.”
    2)The theory in itself is great, but when I ask “OK, tell me how can I implement it in my business/profession?”. There are no answers or systematic, universally adaptable, step by step, procedures accompanying these theories. This differentiates KAIZEN and TPS from others.
    I think “the most powerful yet too simple to understand and use” tool that the TPS has given us is “define value,valued added tasks and non value added tasks, and try to stick as much as you can to the value-added tasks only.” Or in crude capitalistic words “Just do what the customer is ready to pay you for, STUPID.”

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