Tips for Lean Managers

The Wizard of Oz School of Lean

By Jon Miller Updated on May 19th, 2017

The question is more than a month old (sorry Brian!) so perhaps it’s already been worked out with the client, but it was a good question I would like to address. Brian asked:

Can you please share with me your thoughts on implementing Lean? I had a client who asked why they can not instruct their team to just design one piece flow, kanbans, pull systems, and cells. The client says Toyota has proven it to work so why do we not just implement it? I coached on the basis of respect for people to allow the front line to create their workflow based on Lean principles instead of leadership telling them “how-to”. I advised an appropriate target is the outcome they want (short lead time, reduced waiting) and not a “go an do this” target. I also used Stephen Spear’s analogy of a football team with good players using best plays from other teams still failing because of lack of discipline. The client still does not seem convinced. Is the client’s approach a successful method (most Lean literature doesn’t support it)? Is the consulting model of requiring a problem to be solved getting in the way of Lean transformation? Is implementing one piece flow, kanbans, pull systems, and cells a good way to get people thinking lean? I have heard of acting your way to thinking. Any of your thoughts about this would be welcomed. Thank you.

Well, we consultants will tell the client anything so long as it results in the right action, won’t we? It takes some nerve to challenge the client’s thinking and tell them we won’t do what they hired us to do because it’s the wrong thing. In fact telling them this is exactly what they pay us for, but some clients don’t always realize it. “Whatever gets results” is short-sighted and we need to activate people to do “whatever develops the process that gets results” which brings us back to Brian’s question. Especially when clients are hungry for results, why not just let them tell people what to do? After all, Toyota’s early days of developing TPS was fairly heavy-handed and top-down, wasn’t it?
Here are three apparently contradictory pairs of lean implementation maxims:

Flow one at a time to expose the rocks. This is a favorite of many lean consultants regardless of industry, process or product. Although proponents of queuing theory will offer up a more nuanced explanation, working one piece at a time results in a system with the best quality, shortest lead-time, highest productivity and lowest capital costs… if you don’t bring your system crashing to a complete halt in the process. There are at least 10 reasons why one piece flow won’t work and trying one piece flow is worth it to at least identify and prioritize these reasons for yourself so you can get to work on them. There is a lot to be said for experimentation.
Stabilize the system before building up the pillars. More cautious and conservative consultants may advise months of stabilization and foundation building before attempting to flow one at a time. A quick assessment usually makes the process issues obvious, allowing you to remove the biggest obstacles and risk factors. The human issues are often more neglected and these include anything from ergonomics and human factors due to switching from stationary work to mobile multi-process handling, lack of adequate speed and depth of problem response to support one piece flow or simply a management culture that does not appreciate problems being raised in ways that might challenge their sense of authority and control over the system.

Do it first, think about it later. We can call this the “just do it” school of lean. It can be very effective as long as there is a coach or promoter driving the effort. The approach to stakeholder management can often be slash and burn. Some company cultures require this as a means of shocking them out of their denial and sending them down and up the change curve like a roller coaster at an amusement park. The implementation may appear “shoot from the hip” when not tied firmly to top-level objectives and require later correction. We see this style less and less as organizations approach lean implementation with more upfront self-education and awareness of change management success factors. But we still see it.

Plan slowly, act quickly. This is almost the direct opposite of the “do it first” approach and yet the two can coexist very well. The planning is slow by virtue of the fact that it is thorough and consensus-based. There is no question that the organization will “do” once the plan has been set. But the risk is that organizations get stuck in “plan” if there is no strong pacemaker during the planning process, there is no way of gauging when enough planning and risk assessment have been done, or if there are influential agents of passive resistance who prolong the planning process in an effort to prevent the action.
Act you way to a new way of thinking. The classic experiential learning model lives within lean implementation. Taiichi Ohno often said, “The Toyota Production System is practice, not theory.” Ohno would not let you say, “I understand” until you demonstrated that you were doing what he said. Luckily Ohno was a great believer in admitting when he was wrong and making corrections, because otherwise this style of asking people to suspend their criticism and just act can be very dangerous.

Think through to the root cause. Toyota management encourages quick team-based action as a team but only after thorough understanding and definition of the problem, which includes careful reflection and analysis of the root causes. So before we act, we have to think. We’re back to where we started…

I think the shortest answer Brian’s question is that while instructing people to copy the framework and systems of lean such as kanban, one piece flow and pokayoke may result in an initial step improvement, absent an understanding of how these countermeasures were arrived upon, people will not be able to manage and sustain this new way of working. The business landscape is littered with organizations who “already did” six sigma, lean, TQM, or any number of world class management tools, and continue to wander in the wilderness, thanks to this prescriptive approach.
These system implementations fail for the same reasons people die: the brain no longer receives enough oxygen. Blood carries oxygen to the brain. Uncontrolled bleeding, system shock or organ failure stops this flow and causes death. In a similar way, a method such as one piece flow that is transplanted into a production system that is not ready can be rejected and cause system shock. Even when this does not happen, there may not be enough blood flow to keep it healthy. People don’t understand the thinking behind it so they don’t know how to solve problems or adapt to changes in volume or product mix. People’s ideas are to a management system what oxygen is to the brain. Thinking people are the pumping heart.

If we only had a brain, a heart, the nerve, we’d be off to see the results of our lean implementation.

  1. John Santomer

    September 19, 2009 - 3:07 am

    Dear Jon,
    Never has there been such an honest description of what weighs down lean implementaions and initiatives. It just dawned on me that lean leaders are always the target of high professional risk especially when Brian’s queston was taken as the approach – a “How to” leadership directing the implementation in the course of roll down.
    My question, even if enough time was allocated for “Tatakidai”, “Nemawashi”, and planning the strategy; what can lean leaders do on stake holder’s culture (especially if a no-BLAME policy was never a big “HIT” and majority of other initiative owners were out to see that the others will not succeed pushing their own to completion)? Passive resistance is really taking its toll on both sides. No one dared go directly to the owner and Major Stake Holder to explain that things will not work because of these and that.(Mainly human issues and factors are what causes all initiatives to come to a grinding halt and is often the factor being overlooked because of its messy and complicated nature.)

  2. BAT

    September 21, 2009 - 8:43 am


  3. Brian Buck

    September 21, 2009 - 1:31 pm

    Jon – this was very helpful. I love the analogy of the people’s ideas being the oxygen and thinking people being the heart. You also really help by stating people will not know how to react when things change if they were not part of the thinking (TPS just transplanted).

  4. Jon Miller

    September 22, 2009 - 4:35 pm

    Hi John,
    Your questions never have easy (or easy to hear) answers. Faced with such a situation as the one you describe, I would not recommend starting a lean implementation. The first step is to do some leadership development, even possibly some changes in leadership. If you are in the midst of an implementation within a blaming culture, the best approach is to not let it get to you and continue leading by example in the hopes that you will influence others to change. Worth saying again: it’s all about the people.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.