The Lean Manager by Michael Balle and Freddy Balle is the second “lean business novel” by these authors. This novel relates the story of a factory in France threatened with closure and relocation of its business to Poland. The protagonist is a young plant director, and the antagonist the American CEO. The twist is that this CEO is actually a lean thinker, acting as sensei to the protagonist throughout the book.
If I had to classify this book for placement in a book store, it would be fantasy or perhaps science fiction. Management science has not yet progressed to the point where we have enlightened CEOs of global corporations personally mentoring plant directors into becoming lean managers, much less leading kaizen events in order to identify and develop future leaders. The Taiichi Ohno-esque questioning and teaching by the CEO in the first half of the book is fantastic, in both senses of the word.
At nearly 450 pages the main challenge with this book is its length. While highly readable and ambitious in the scope of what it teaches, it is difficult to recommend, much less require this as reading for aspiring lean managers. A chapter by chapter summary would ruin the flow of the novel, but a companion study guide would make the goodness in these 450 pages more accessible.
It is unclear whether this audience is intended to be beginners and lean learners, practicing lean specialists or managers, or CEOs. Based on the fact that this is a sequel to The Gold Mine, the authors may have assumed a high level of literacy with lean manufacturing terms and Toyota Production System concepts. In the first 100 pages alone kanban, Pareto charts, kaizen, SMED, 5 why and other phrases make appearances with little or no introduction. This makes the book less accessible to beginners of lean.
The middle 200+ pages cover discussions between characters in the book on the application of various lean systems and tools. The illustrations are helpful and the explanations are solid and insightful. At the same time the reader is left wanting more on each topic rather than a shifting of setting or a focus on another tool or sub-system. The authors succeed in making the challenges of applying lean concepts, managing change and personal learning by the characters in this book far more interesting than a textbook or Power Point presentation. These 200+ pages provide a skillful summary of a year-long effort to turn around a factory through lean manufacturing implementation.
The last 100 pages ratchet up the tension in the plot and between the characters, bringing the story to its satisfying conclusion.
If there were to be a third book in the series, I would like to see it targeted at the CEO, capturing the lessons in this book much more concisely, shedding light on the thought process, leadership style, behaviors and personal struggles of the lean leader who must act as a teacher. The same book (The Lean Manager) rewritten succinctly as a parallel telling of the story from the CEO perspective would also achieve this aim. Or perhaps a talented reader can create such a piece of fan fiction.
There are many gems in the book, my favorite being the quote: “Gemba is a great teacher.”