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lean eventaholicCurrent State: the problem with North American implementation of Lean

(This is the fifth post in this series.  If you’ve missed any of the previous posts, check them out by clicking on the “May” link at the right. We are thinking that there are some comments out there.  Feel free to post your thoughts. We would love to hear from you!)

I’ve given you an idea for where our current state problem began, but let’s look at how it is manifested in our own organizations today.

The first thing we’ll look at is what a has become known in operational excellence circles as “event-a-holism”.  This is characterized by people who are “event-aholics”.  (Check out a some great thoughts by Jamie Flinchbaugh on this subject.) Maybe you can relate to this phenomenon.  By “event” I mean the classic kaizen event. These events were formerly known as kaizen blitzes, but the concept of kaizen being a blitz or happening very quickly and intensely flew in the face of reason.  So the practitioners re-spun this device into the kaizen event.

A typical event is arranged around five work days, normally Monday through Friday.  The team, carefully selected to include the right stakeholders including a high level champion and a few token process workers, is given some review training on things like the eight wastes, how to construct a value stream map, etc. They take a day to capture the current state by observation, hopefully.  They map the current state as best they can, but after all, they’ve included the guys working in the process.  At least they’ll have captured the variations that those guys experience.  Next they come back to dream about the future state.  They identify some areas for improvement, make a plan to improve the process and construct a one page report.  The team is then paraded up the food chain to “report out” on the progress of their week.

In concept, the event idea is OK and would work where the culture for continuous improvement is already formed.  But as with so many good ideas wrongly applied, when you do events and track the number of events you are not really changing the culture much.

You probably can recognize the event system as a hybrid of the Womack and the TSSC pathways.  Like the most on the TSSC pathway, you get some changes, but they are predictable:

1.     People like improvement events, but they report that soon after they return to business as usual it is – truly – business as usual.

2.    People and teams are aligned when in the event, but when the event is over, they return to the mis-aligned state: business as usual.

3.    Organizations place an emphasis on the event system calling it lean and saying that they are implementing lean manufacturing, but they are really just implementing a system of events.  Because the events don’t get what we expect – full-scale cultural change – we move on the next best thing.  Lean becomes, at that point, the flavor of the month or year.

4.    Processes are changed under the banner of improvement, but because continuous improvement culture is weak – there is no attention paid to the human and operations balance – the improvements rarely take into consideration the instability of the process.  This problem is manifested in two ways. The process gets stable due to new standardizations, but the stability is short lived because the standards don’t address the full range of variability in the process.  Or, the process causes instability in the processes up and down stream.  The result is the human reaction: this didn’t work.

Another problem in the current state of our lean systems is our failure to embrace is fully.  I call this problem the “…and lean (or OE)” phenomenon.

Businesses and organizations, like computers, must have a human and operational operating system in order to get things done.  These operating systems organize the way we communicate, the way we execute, the way we navigate and the way we relate to external stakeholders.  Most businesses have a distinct human systems that may or may not support the operations system.

It has been my experience in the region that most organizations have disparate systems.  They adopt lean as a tactic as opposed to a strategy that would replace BOTH operating systems.  The result is that their extant systems keep delivering what they were designed to deliver and we “do lean” things.  We do our business as usual “and Lean”.

So, we may have a robust understanding of lean and getting some decent gains, but the gain seem to be isolated; the development seems arrested.  The reason this happens is because there is no integration or replacement of the old way.  We implement, probably feebly, kanban on the assembly floor without ever thinking that the whole business should be run using pull systems, right down to accounts receivable. We have standard work for the operator on the line, but we would never think to create standard leader’s work, especially for the Chief Executive Officer.

The result is usually predictable and easy to spot.  I can walk on a floor and see lean artifacts but walk through the offices and see none.  If you limit lean, you’ve missed the point.

One final problem in the current state is when lean is someone’s pet project.  Top level leaders “buy” the idea of lean and give just enough rope to the local lean zealot who has read all 772 books that Amazon carries on the subject.  The lean zealot through sheer will-power creates some gains.  The top level leader adds more work to the zealot because we all grew up watching John Wayne movies and recognizing the hero when we saw him, right?

I could go on and on.  I could connect each error in form and function to someone either subscribing directly to or being influenced by someone who subscribes to the Womack pathway or the TSSC pathway.  Next up: the Next Generation of Ideal…

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One Response to “Current State: the problem with North American implementation of Lean”

  1. The Basis for Innovation is Microinnovation
    4:43 pm on May 18th, 2011

    [...] day. This stands, at times, in stark contrast with the “swing for the fence” mentality of the Lean gurus who promote “kaizen blitzes” (an [...]

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