Friday, November 21, 2014

Lean is not a program

Over two years ago, I wrote a post saying, You don't "do Lean."  Beyond suggesting that there should be a form of medical malpractice lawsuit against those consulting firms that promise hospitals that they will teach them how to "do Lean," I summarized the main point:

Lean is not a program.  It is a long-term philosophy of corporate leadership and organization that is based, above all, on respect shown to front-line staff.  There are two essential aspects, training front-line workers to be empowered and encouraged to call out problems on the "factory floor," and training managers to understand that their job is to serve those front-line workers by knowing what is going on on the front lines and responding in real time (when problems are fresh) to the call-outs.

A recent article by Emmanuel Jallas takes this theme a step further, based on a visit to a manufacturing facility.  Excerpts:

Fake Lean can be very smart. Or rather, I should say convincing at first glance.

I was visiting a facility of a great manufacturer with well known and respected products. I was told by my host, a manager at this facility, that every problem reported by associates is fixed by the team itself within five days, or by the support team under supervision of the facility manager. It all sounds impressive, right?

Maybe not.

While my guide left me alone to go speak with the factory manager, I took five minutes to just watch a team member working in this facility. At the end of this time I had 10 kaizen ideas, least four of which had to do with this person’s safety. She was bending her torso backwards every 20 seconds in order not to hit a screen with her head. She twisted her body 180° several times per minute in order to discard plastic bags in a trash bin which was right behind her. She was raising her shoulder over its normal height because of the length of her screw gun. And so on. Maybe things weren’t going so well after all.

So what is happening in this factory?

Upon further reflection and discussion with its leaders, it occurred to me that Lean was "put in place" here without any consideration for or effort made toward creating a lean culture.

The team member I observed has no chance to speak with leadership about her true problems. Not only this, she hasn’t been helped with how to see and understand them. As a result, she’s focusing less on her work and more on not hitting her head several times per minute.

He summarizes:

Taiichi Ohno was famous for asking managers to "step inside the circle" in order to develop problem- seeing, not just problem solving. Steven J. Spear has written in greater detail about this kind of skill development for managers in "Learning to Lead at Toyota" at Harvard Business Review, but coaching others to help them learn to see problems is really what this lean stuff is all about. No matter how much an organization boasts about their lean practices, or your own company does, it’s this ability to see problems that you really want to be looking for.


nonlocal MD said...

I understand that Lean, when undertaken properly, has had fantastic results in the health care arena. But I continue to believe strongly that instilling this culture and 'being' Lean is such an arduous, foreign-seeming, multiyear process, with such potential for wasted effort, that it scares away many and makes others susceptible to these 'quickie' versions offered by consultants. ( And then there is the problem of the next ignorant leader discarding it, as depicted in a recent post of yours.) The Japanese terms thrown around in this article were meaningless to me, for instance, and limited my understanding of the point the author was trying to make and hardly persuading me.
Call me cynical, but I don't think Lean will gain traction in hospitals until it proponents stop stubbornly insisting on the 'old' ways and consider a process more amenable to the needs and fears of present U.S. hospitals - which are considerable.
And now I will cover my head for the barrage of criticism.

Paul Levy said...

So true, but not only for health care. The same issues arises in every other sector. Lean is employed by a relatively small percentage of firms generally and then properly employed by an even smaller percentage.

Where it is properly employed, though, it makes a substantial difference.