What does a manager need to know to undertake a Lean transformation?

This is the second in a series of questions I have received from the Spanish magazine APD (Asociación para el Progreso Directivo). My answer is as follows and, perhaps, your comments will help me make it better:

More than anything the managers need to know what they don’t know. Lean is not a discipline you can master by reading one book on an airplane or taking a one-day course. It is the result of over 60 years of development at Toyota and other companies, built on top of the foundation of mid-20th century manufacturing know-how, with a rich technical and managerial content. Managers do not need to master the technical details, but they need an appreciation for them.

A manager who says “We do Lean, TOC, Six Sigma, and TPM” shows a lack of this appreciation. If you look behind the labels, such a list is akin to  Borges’s classification of animals. TOC is about production control; Six Sigma, statistical methods for quality; TPM, maintenance. Lean covers all of these issues and more, from production line design to wage systems and human resource management. It is deeper and broader than all the other programs and does not belong in a list with  them.

While showing respect for the technical side of Lean, managers obviously need to master the managerial side, which includes both skills in leading the transformation of an organization to Lean, and the management of daily operations in this organization once the transformation is underway. This ranges from a strategy deployment tool like Hoshin Planning to running start of shift meetings every day and providing career planning for production operators.

12 comments on “What does a manager need to know to undertake a Lean transformation?

  1. Number one thing a manager needs to know about Lean Transformer is the level of “buy-in” from the President & CEO and his direct reports. Continuous improvement is a journey and the executive team needs to be aligned and committed long-term. Without the “buy-in” and executive alignment a manager will have limited success with lean transformation. Following “Buy-in”, Change Management is recommended (E=QxA), to again organizational alignment and stakeholder engagement. From here the roadmap for success is easy, “Think Big, Start Small, Realize Value and Replicate.”

  2. In addition to what you have identified, Michel, managers need to become leaders in the true sense. Lean is not something that can be delegated, it requires involvement, and what a leader does to show involvement can make or break progress. It requires each individual to lead differently: to listen, to question in a way that engages and empowers people, to measure the business in different ways, to provide vision, to make decisions and take action with a long term view, to build capability in their people, to eliminate barriers to progress, to drive understanding of root cause, to care as much about how a result is obtained as the result itself, and so on. Leaders do not have to have all the answers, but they need the right questions at the right time and the ability to deeply listen to the answers.
    One of the things that I have seen leaders struggle with is the ability to give up “control”, which seems counter intuitive – more involved with less control. Once they change their style of leadership, built capabilities in themselves and others as leaders, take time for reflection to create vision and tie the vision to strategy, their progress on the Lean journey accelerates. It is also important for leaders to understand the gap between where their culture is currently and the type of culture that will sustain Lean in the long term.
    All to often I have seen people focus completely on the implementation of the tools without regard for the people/culture side of the organization. It is the culture you create as a leader – by culture I mean how the organization acts when no one is watching – that will ultimately determine your level of sustainability.

  3. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma discussion group on LinkedIn:

    In short:
    * How to get commitment both up and down
    * Some basic knowledge of the principles (the books are easy to comprehend. Lean thinking is fine to get the general idea.)
    * How to educate and manage ‘blackbelts”: fulltime process improvers.
    * How to manage the pocess during improvements
    * How to prevent suboptimalisation
    * How to deal with “Can’t Shouldn’t Won’t Wouldn’t”-people: they kill creativity in the beginning.
    -How to create and manage a burning platform

  4. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Michel – couldn’t resist:

    Everything and nothing – and know which is which…

    Hope to see you at a conference in 2012..

  5. Comment in the Lean manufacturing & Kaizen discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Not sure exactly what you are looking for.
    If the question means do it on his own as opposed to with a consultant, I would expect, as an absolute minimum, he has read at least one quality book, more is better.
    The book will describe the problems he can expect and what he needs to know.
    He also needs to know if he is prepared to put the effort/resources in and stick with it.
    It would also help if he was capable of leading a team and training in what the team needs to know. Otherwise he will need to select a suitably skilled person.
    If you are asking about a precursor to hiring a consultant, he would need to know what he will get out of it.
    I have spoken to many companies who have no idea of what lean is, let alone the benefits.
    I would still recommend a book, although the consultants would gladly fill in any knowledge gaps.

    • While I think it is foolhardy for managers with no experience of Lean to undertake the transformation of a plant without consulting help, I also think that, the more they learn on their own before, the more effective they will be at using consultants.

      For learning, I also recommend reading some books, but not just any book. For beginners, I chose the following:
      1. As an accurate and easy-to-read introduction to the subject, I have long been recommending Kiyoshi Suzaki’s The New Manufacturing Challenge. Suzaki’s book describes the operations of factories practicing Lean, but not how to convert a traditional plant. It describes the destination but not the way to get there. This is appropriate for readers who are new to the subject, and Suzaki writes well enough to retain a manager’s attention during air travel. It is clear and well written. Its only drawback is that it dates back to 1987.
      2. On the managerial side of Lean, Pascal Dennis’s Getting the Right Things Done is highly readable introduction to Hoshin Planning. I actually like this book so much that I wrote the French translation.
      3. Womack and Jones’s The Machine That Changed the World is the summary of a benchmarking survey of the world car industry in the late 1980s, in which the term “Lean” was used for the first time to describe the Toyota Production System. It is also a good introductory read.

      There are many short courses and webinars available, but of varying quality. Check the outlines, the instructors’ background, the endorsements, and the organization that offers them.

      Going on factory tours is popular, but beginners at Lean just don’t learn much from them. People who have participated in at least one improvement project learn much more from seeing other companies’ shop floors.

  6. Comment in the Lean manufacturing & Kaizen discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Thinking Lean is key and takes years according to Pascal Dennis and I agree. I received my first formal Lean training before we called it “Lean”. In 1984 it was “Japanese Manufacturing Techniques”. Aside from the methods of Lean the most important facet to a Lean conversion is what goes on inside the collective mentallity of an organization, its culture. Lean takes greater discipline than most managers realize. Continuous Improvement is at the core of any successful enterprise and it requires hyper response from factory support groups. Focus on the internal customer and penalties for lethargic response are critical to a successful Lean conversion.

    Another hurdle in my experience is too much capital money to spend. These Japanese manufacturing techniques were born in a capital-free environment using equipment that still had damage from allied bombing raids during WWII. Most manufacturing engineers need a constant flow of capital life-support to do anything and it limits creativity. We have this tendency to throw money at an issue instead of applying creativity and discipline.

    Lastly, within the “Lean” umbrella of activity there is a continuation of the fad manufacturing mentallity that persists. Before “Lean” we had mass production and EOQ (economic order quantities) and within that umbrella we had “Islands of Automation” fixed and flexible automation, CIM, CADCAM, and on and on. A managing manager (as opposed to a manger from a manufacturing background) can get confused and may think that within Lean there is this same endless stream of new strategies pitched by every brillant mind with a mouth and knack for motivational speaking. In other words, you don’t need six-sigma to solve a problem and keep in solved, you need discipline.

    My $0.02


  7. Comment in the Morocco Lean Manufacturing & Six Sigma discussion group on Linkedin:

    Beyond the technical knowledge of Lean tools, it is more global vision of the organization whose needs a leader in lean transformation.
    Lean transformation doesn’t concern only production but also all its related services. And staff of these services is unfortunately less receptive to the notion of work optimization.
    A good way to start a lean transformation requires the development of general mapping of business processes from customer order entry to delivery !
    The leader of a lean transformation will therefore not necessarily a technical expert but it will put the finger on the correct malfunctions and will manage corrective action plans.

  8. Comment in the Lean manufacturing & Kaizen discussion group on LinkedIn:

    To start with management needs to identify the opportunities available with a lean system, this is made easier with a consultant bringing in an outside perspective. The opportunities need to them be communicated to senior management (they have to be onboard).
    Develop a plan of action, this should identify the team members that will inspire others and drive change, identify training needs (long term and short term) including the floor personnel, identify the business constraint which is the best starting position for lean initives.
    Establish goals and objectives, take alot of photos for before and after comparisons, establish performance measures and targets, benchmark the business against the best in the world, set targets for short term and long term objectives.
    Establish rewards, these can be profitshare, recognition programs, and social functions. Try to avoid cash rewards as expectation for future rewards will eventially demotivate staff.

  9. Comment in the Lean manufacturing & Kaizen discussion group on LinkedIn:

    The problem has three levels: knowing that lean (and other) processes exist; knowing what they can do for a company and knowing that there is a demand on the resources of the organization.

    I spent 6 years working for a new government organization. From Day-1, we had to find Scottish manufacturing companies and promote lean improvement at a national level.

    We had the added advantage that we could seek introductions to a vast number of companies who dealt with other government agencies. But, it was not an easy task in the beginning.

    If we just take Lean as an example – a methodology that has been used in the West since the 1980’s – it was amazing how few organizations even knew of its existence. Those that did were often multinationals with American parents or companies with subsidiaries in the States, where lean had a higher acceptance.

    Once the process is known, it is easy to pick up a book and get a guide or find sources of advice on the web.

    I find LinkedIn to be an excellent source of understanding and differences between the applications of the processes.

    Finally, many of the companies who “know” lean exists, expect it to be run like their factory canteen. They believe that lean is a product – like a tin of paint. That they can use it or not, pop in and out when the like and the managers can leave the running of the process to the chef.

    We all know this is not the case.


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