Review of The Lean Manager by Michael Balle and Freddy Balle

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.”

5 Comments

  1. R Drescher

    December 2, 2009 - 5:06 am

    I will suggest a minor disagreement with your review. Firstly I think the book was written to upper management, for the purpose of showing them what they should be doing, and how it will change their organization.
    Yes rarely in today’s mega-companies do CEOs ever talk to lowly plant managers, except to read them the riot act. There are and have been exceptions Toyota and Honda CEOs do get down on the plant floor and Lee Iacocca often walked plant floors. Although the purpose is different from what is in the book, they go down not to actually help anyone, but to show the workers and plant management that they respect and believe in them. After all the reality is that there are often others with more useful knowledge than they have to do the teaching, so instead the one thing they can do is to show their respect of these people.
    Additionally most companies are not all that large, and the majority of the population in most countries actually own or work for small to medium size companies. It is these companies where the CEO can and actually should be of this type. I know of at least two medium sized companies that the CEO and the owner actually do this very role regularly, and they have both weathered the current economic situation better than their competition.
    The argument about there not being enough information about the various tools, or good introductions for them, I would also disagree with. There are more than enough books about the tools, in fact there are probably more books about the tools than are actually needed. What we need is more books to teach us how to act, behave, and be human. The biggest problem and the most common reason for Lean failure is the poor way we actually deal with human beings. The message of the book is that people are the most important part of the equation, and unless you deal with them first you will fail.
    It is a valid attempt at trying to teach the human side which is almost totally ignored. In fact I should get off my lazy backside and develop a human training tool, that does not need an experienced human trianer to teach it.

  2. Sunil Yadav

    December 2, 2009 - 5:58 am

    Hi Jon,
    I have been just given the responsibility to get back on track the Lean initiatives of my company after a gap of 6 months.
    How can i get more involvement of employees to lean initiatives as there were lots of internal changes in the organization.

  3. John Santomer

    December 2, 2009 - 6:15 am

    ”Gemba is a great teacher”- with the teachings and principles involved in the Toyota Way; can Gemba provide anyone with the astute edge to re-define a closed loop process gone awry? Similarly, in an absence of a process and an individual has done everything to realize a targeted goal, drew out a process from the step-by-step experience taken as “gemba”- can this person set a standard on this closed loop process?

  4. Bryan

    December 10, 2009 - 6:36 am

    Oh man! R Drescher, your comments had me ‘wispy,’ nodding passionately in agreement the whole time until your LAST paragraph!! Please, don’t “develop a human training tool, that does not need an experienced human traininer to teach it.” This is why Lean fails in so many places because the human element of teaching and knowledge transfer is not appreciated! Man, I thought you were going to say that!!! 🙂

  5. Ron Jacques

    December 11, 2009 - 5:33 am

    Just as R. Drescher notes above, Lean and Six Sigma initiatives fail because they lack the cultural development and sustainability that is required of a long, long journey. Much like a trek up a mountain, a hiker must prepare for the trip with more than sufficient supplies, tools and elemental protection. If a hiker were to just embark on this journey without suitable preparation, he/she will certainly succumb to the elements, environment and ultimately to the mountain (culture).
    Many people forget that LSS is a cultural management philosophy and not just a high powered change initiative. I recommend the book by Ken Blanchard, “Who Killed Change”. It is a short easy one day read and certainly gives the reader a flavor as to how lean deployments can go awry. Also like Drescher above, I am always seeking out books, blogs or other improvement materials that are related to the human factor of Lean deployment. I think there is a great lacking of material in this area, due to the fact that every business is a “unique” environment where a different combination of tools, methods and personalities must be employed to perform change, so a standard book on this is not possible, only one that reports what an actual business did.
    We who deploy LSS must take our tools, muster the intestinal fortitude, and prepare for a long and typically never ending journey. We must be dynamic both in deployment as well as in method as business conditions, customer demands and global competition are ever changing. That is the essence of LSS, rapid and efficient change management.