The Central Coast Lean Summit — 2016 | CalPoly — San Luis Obispo | 2/19/2016

Central Coast Lean Summit Venue
Central Coast Lean Summit Venue

Last Friday, together with 140 other participants, I attended the Central Coast Lean Summit at CalPoly in San Luis Obispo, CA. where the keynote address by Sam MacPherson was about Lean leadership. It was a recurring theme in other presentations as well, particularly from Steven Kane, and in Beau Keyte‘s Lean Coaching Café. Ken Snyder described the evolution of the Shingo Prize since inception. There were also several case presentations, from healthcare, government, and academia.


When, in his opening words, host Eric Olsen announced that the session would run on time, like German trains, I couldn’t help but interject that German trains were always late, as I noticed when leading groups on tours of German factories. A frustrated German blogger posted the following chart of the percentage of trains late at least at one station by type of train between January and September 2013, from Deutsche Bahn data:

Punctuality by train type in Germany, 1/2013 to 9/2013
Punctuality by train type Germany, 1/2013 to 9/2013

While overall performance is abysmal, the blogger noted that the least awful categories, Railjet, TGV, and Thalys on the right were all trains operated by foreign companies. The German flagship high-speed ICEs were on time at every station barely 30% of the time.

If there were any participants from manufacturing, I did not meet them. Discussing their absence with Beau Keyte, I told him I personally remained focused on manufacturing, first because its problems are not solved — it has not improved much after 25 years of Lean agitation — and second, because I like factories. “I’m glad you are still happy in manufacturing,” he replied. “My dad managed four plants in the US and Europe and I grew up on the floor.  I still love the opportunity to get back to one.”

The presentations were on a range of topics, as you can see from the slides shared on the summit website, but Lean leadership is a topic of particular interest to me, particularly in recent conversations with Sam MacPherson, and I will focus my comments on it.

What is Leadership?

Different speakers had different views of what leadership is. To Sam, leading means influencing followers, and this is what thought leaders do.  I like to think that I have some influence over my 82,500 LinkedIn followers but it is not comparable to what of leaders do in operations  where get others to act with them in pursuit of goals like setting up a new production line in the next three months, or producing cars at a takt time of 58 seconds through today’s shift. Steven Kane had yet another perspective on leaders when he said that they made their followers successful. I don’t see it as defining leadership, because of the implication that it is always applied to worthy ends. It excludes the possibility of leading followers off a cliff.

Leadership and Management

Although I did not hear this during this summit, bloggers and even business publications often oppose leaders and managers, with statements that boil down to “Leader good – Manager bad.” Leaders inspire, have a vision, develop people, ask why; managers administer, control, maintain, accept the status quo, stifle innovation, etc. Bashing managers, however, does not strike me as a promising strategy when addressing people with that title.

Business schools, under the influence of Henri Fayol, have been teaching that the functions of managers are to “Plan, Organize, Lead, and Control” (POLC). It includes leading and sounds very much like PDCA, as applied to the task of getting things done through others.

Plan, Organize and Control are more formal and easier to teach than Lead which, as a result, tends to get short shrift. Also, both PDCA and POLC can be misinterpreted as a sequence of separate tasks that the manager does alone, based on his or her infinite wisdom. But it can also be rightly interpreted as intertwined dimensions of the work that needs to be done. Hoshin Planning, for example, is planning, but it involves the whole team and requires leadership. Conversely, leading a team requires consideration of the circumstances and the individuals involved, which is planning and organizing.

Leadership and Responsibility

The discussions of leadership and decision making often omit the issue of responsibility. Regardless of the extent of a team’s involvement in making decisions, responsibility for the outcome stays with the manager. For this reason, I advocate the sleep-at-night test to draw the line on delegation: “Can I sleep at night knowing I will be responsible for decision A made by team members X and Y?” If the answer is yes, you delegate. Otherwise, you say “We’ll make that decision together,” which means you keep the final say. And the line between the two moves over time as the organization matures.

Leaders and Technical Content

With regards to managers injecting their own ideas in team discussions, Beau Keyte emphasized that it makes them take personal ownership of the problem instead of leading the team to its solution. I think there another issue besides ownership is that the manager’s ideas are never assessed objectively. Most members will systematically agree with the boss, and a few will make a point of disagreeing systematically. No one will assess the ideas as if they came from a regular team member. It is particularly dangerous because managers tend to overestimate their technical skills. They may have been great engineers 15 years ago, but now they are rusty and out of touch with technology.

Leading Into Uncharted Territory

Much of the Lean literature, like McKinsey’s Journey to Lean, assumes that, based on an assessment of the current state of operations, managers can define a desired future state, align around a shared vision, and commit to achieve it (p. 10 and Chapter 8). This is simplistic because, at the outset of a company’s Lean transformation, there is no way the managers could know how to do this. Lean Transformation is the exploration of uncharted territory, not the construction of a house (See What’s Wrong With the Rote Application of Lean Tools?).

At the start, a manager cannot have the information needed to draw a detailed vision of a future state. He or she can see until the next ridge, but not beyond. The opportunities come into focus as you go. I think the future of any business organization is uncharted territory regardless of whether you go Lean or not. Developing Lean leadership is not about enabling the organization to execute a plan, but about endowing with the skills it needs to deal with the game changers that are certain to come its way, whether in the form of a 70% drop in oil price or the introduction by Apple of an “i” version of its product.

Leadership and Tools

As discussed in a last year’s post, giving due consideration to leadership and culture should not lead to ignoring tools. Just because the conductor matters doesn’t mean the musicians’ individual skills don’t.

In quality improvement, Philip Crosby’s Zero Defects (ZD) in the 1960s was a tool-free approach focused entirely on management and motivation. The closest to a tool the ZD approach had was the mantra “Do it right the first time!” Neither Deming nor Juran thought much of it. Tools, on the other hand, were central to the Quality Circle concept developed about the same time by Kaoru Ishikawa and J– USE. It was a small group of production operators who were taught the 7 tools of QC and applied them to quality improvement.

Quality Circles worked.  They never took root in the US or Europe but, 55 years on, they still exist by the millions in Japan, China, India, the rest of Asia, and in Japanese transplant factories in the US. And the approach was adapted to other kind of problems. A team of volunteers is paid overtime to work on a problem two to three times a week after regular hours and occasionally during week-ends, for three to four months, and is trained on specific tools with which to address it. It is, for example, an effective way to conduct SMED projects. Most of the continuous improvement work at Honda is done through “New Honda Circles” organized in this manner. As long as it was running, NUMMI had about 100 “Problem-Solving Circles.”