Lean and national cultures: interview in Russia’s Business Excellence magazine

This month, I made the cover of Russia’s Business Excellence magazine, with an interview on my international experience of implementing Lean. For those who do not read Russian, the English version is as follows:

Michel, you implemented Lean in the US, in France, and in Japan. How do you see your experience of working in Russia against this background? What is peculiar about the Russian approach to management?

Generalizations on such matters are always counterproductive for me. I work with people, and find that variations in personalities transcend national culture. I had a conversation recently with an aerospace executive who decides where to locate factories, and he was saying “China this…” and “India that…,” which struck me as the stereotypes I avoid. Then I realized that the kinds of work we do gave us different perspectives. When he decides to build a plant in a location, he does not yet know who will work in it, while I help people who are already there.

When it comes to organizing people, materials, equipment and processes to produce globally competitive products, you should neither expect Russian culture to give you an edge nor accept it as an excuse to apply any but the best known practices. National culture is about as relevant to assembly lines as it is to soccer. If there is one lesson to learn from Japan, it is the willingness to abandon obsolete traditions and use good ideas from elsewhere.

In the mid 19th century, when confronted with American and European powers, the leaders of Japan boldly and deliberately adopted their technology, business structures, education systems, and legal systems, as a result of which Japan became a world power within 50 years, a performance unmatched by any other country in Asia or Africa.

Russian managers today should not worry about russianness. Instead, they should focus on making products that worldwide customers want to buy, and on creating brands that are recognized and respected. The Russian soul can express itself in books, paintings, music and movies… It does not need to do it on the shop floor of soap or helicopter factories.

There is a lot of state capital in Russian business, and many companies with large share of government participation. Do you think it’s possible to change production systems quickly and irreversibly in such companies, taking into account their inertia (slow reaction to changes) and disposition to conservative models?

You always need to improve in order to be competitive. It is true whether you operate in Russia, the US, Japan, or Sri Lanka, and whether or not a government is one of your shareholders. It requires intense efforts over time and can be undone. In 2000, Wiremold, a showcase of Lean success in the US, was bought by Legrand, whose management reversed the improvements over the following 6 years. And this story unfolded in the private sector, with no government involvement.

Working with OrgProm in a Russian plant, I remember a manager who always had a reason why nothing could be done. The proposed solutions violated Russian labor laws or fire codes, or just wouldn’t work with Russian workers. In a meeting, he interrupted a presentation by just saying “It’s not allowed!” with great conviction, at which point everybody laughed. That was the end of his obstructions.

Many Americans have a negative view of government; many French people, excessive expectations from government. Russians have the experience of government running the entire economy… There are real questions as to the role it should play in general, and in particular in manufacturing. The record is mixed. Besides their obvious role is setting regulations in areas like minimum wages or pollution, governments are sometimes able to undertake projects that are beyond the scope of anything the private sector would.

For example, the machine tool industry and technical drawings with critical dimensions and tolerances that we use today are the output of a program to develop interchangeable parts technology funded by the US government for the entire first half of the 19th century. More recently, TWI was also a US government program. And there are many other examples outside of manufacturing.

On the other hand, the US government often gets it wrong, as in the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program, in which it subsidizes consulting firms to provide discounted Lean implementation services to small and medium-size manufacturers (SMEs). The problem with this approach is that they government is not competent at selecting consulting firms for such services, and that the MEPs are unfair competitors to all other consultants. Instead, the government could have subsidized the SMEs directly, and have them pay market rates for the services.

If, as a Russian, you work for a manufacturing company with the government as a dominant shareholder, you have to decide for yourself whether it is a plus or a minus. As a Russian citizen, you need to decide what the extent of government involvement in the economy should be. In the US, the question is not settled. It is being argued fiercely in the current presidential election.

Your colleague Michael Wader has gained the affection of many Russian managers. His training style has a lot to do with this – he goes to the shop floor and actually dives into machines, etc. How would you describe this style? Should all business trainers working in Russia dive into machines?

Consultants should dive into the work of the people they are helping, whether machining or software development. “Diving” into the work does not mean doing it but getting close enough to understand the issues and provide useful input. It cannot be done in a conference room.

The general principle is to go where the work is being done and focus on its actual object, in Toyota terms, “Genchi Gembutsu.” It needs to be emphasized because so many managers, engineers and even consultants are not doing it. In the US, I remember walking through the shop floor of a machine-shop with its owner, who had not been through it in over two years and was shocked by what he saw.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that it is all we need to do. As consultants, we must also listen to the ideas, strategies and perceptions of the company that are communicated by people at all levels through words, tone of voice, and body language. And we must also analyze the company’s data to get a complete picture, but that is another discussion.

It also means that clients should show their operations to consultants in detail, without defensiveness or embarrassment. If you show a Potemkin village, the consultant won’t be able to help you.

One of your courses is called “The Journey to Perfect Quality Through Lean Implementation”. How did you develop it and where did you implement it in real life? Please describe the results in detail. 

Quality is improved by Lean, often using methods that Quality professionals are unaware of. In aerospace machining, for example, I have seen one-piece flow in a cell divide defective production by a factor of ten, but I have never seen that in textbooks on Quality Management. I developed this course jointly with Kevin Hop, who used these approaches at Honda.

The Quality profession overemphasizes the statistical methods — the old SPC or the new Six Sigma — that are useful when process capability is your main source of quality problems. Once process capability is established, however, the focus should shift to discrete events such as tool or machine breakdowns, and to the rapid detection of these events. This is where one-piece flow yields the next order-of-magnitude reduction in defect generation. What remains beyond this is human error, which is the object of mistake-proofing. For details, see the paper I wrote 10 years ago in IE magazine.

More recent developments at Toyota include JKK, which means “autonomous process completion” and is focused on preventing the transfer of defectives to the next operation, and CPM, or “Change Point Management,” which is the development of planned responses to problems before they occur.

The job of a consultant and business trainer requires constant travelling around the world. How does your regular work day / month look?

I am on the road about 50% of the time, to have enough time left for preparation, and research. When not on the road, I keep odd hour to communicate with clients in multiple time zones. The late afternoon works for China, late night and early morning for Russia, later in the morning for Western Europe, and the rest of the day for the US.

How do you manage to overcome inevitable cross-cultural differences and reach the minds and hearts of managers with completely different mentalities?

You develop a rapport with engineers and managers by focusing first on technical issues, where culture matters least, and then you move on to the tougher management issues.

Does your own multi-cultural experience (living in France and then moving to the US) have anything to do with it?

It has to do with wanting to do it. The Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf says that we have origins rather than roots. Your origins are where you are from. They don’t limit where you go. Roots, on the other hand, tie you to a place.

From an early age, I have always wanted to interact with people from other cultures, and that is why I learned several languages. Russian was actually the second one, after German, and I studied it for seven years, ending in 1977. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to use it for another 29 years, when OrgProm first invited me to Yekaterinburg. By then, I barely remembered the alphabet.

In my professional travels, I rarely get to see the tourist attractions, but I feel that you experience more of a country from working with people in its factories than through sightseeing.

Which of your Lean implementation projects is your favorite and why?

CIADEA/Renault in Argentina, 20 years ago. It was a small car company and, as a result, we intervened in all aspects of its operations, from final assembly to foundry, and even consumer credit operations, as well as supplier development. It involved multiple visits by four consultants over three years and was spectacularly successful.

Do you think it’s possible to create a model (ideal) production system?

Whoever thinks he has is sure to have a nasty surprise when something better comes along. This is why I have banned the word “optimal” from my vocabulary.