Monday, March 20, 2006

Lean Thinking and Management

Topic: Management Improvement

Several interesting posts have been inspired by the Kaizen Priorities post on Got Boondoggle. While it has been mentioned debating these ideas may not be valuable, I believe it can be valuable to explore the reasons behind the different views.

Bill Waddel's post, Lean Manufacturing, points to the importance of cycle time reduction (versus the priorities mentioned in the original post). I think that point is valuable. He also talks about the reasons for Six Sigma's failures and the difficulty finding lean manufacturing success stories (outside Toyota).

I agree that we should acknowledge the paucity of success stories. The failures of management are not minor. The problems are large and the successes seem limited. The biggest thing I think we need to learn from this is that improving management is not easy. The concepts may seem simple but most of us can look around and see much more Dilbert Boss behavior than lean thinking behavior. And the gap between those two types of behavior seems to rise as you go "up" the organization chart.

My belief is that an organization must slowly and consistently move in the right direction. Toyota got to where it is today after many decades of continuous improvement. I don't think there are shortcuts to truly operating as a lean company.

However that does not mean that an organization cannot move in the right direction. I think many alternatives can help start that journey. To me the most important factors to whether the steps will actually lead anywhere are:
  • success that builds upon success upon success...
  • a commitment to continuous improvement
  • a commitment to learning
  • long term leadership for management improvement
To me most organizations will not even seriously consider changing the current management thought process without drastic threat (bankruptcy) or numerous successful improvements that give credibility to the new management ideas. Therefore to me the most important thing is finding a way to successfully introduce ideas and build upon those successes over time.

The second through fourth factors might not even be present at first. I believe it is perfectly fine to start with successfully improving and only after people start to take notice work on those points. And don't expect that to be easy. I believe most organizations never will accept that anything other than a few new tools are needed. And they move on to the next fad (Management by Objective, TQM, Re-engineering, Six Sigma, Lean Thinking...).

To me "Kaizen Priorities" was about what to actually do now. "Lean Manufacturing" is about what to do now (reduce cycle time) and warning about the fact that most likely the overriding management will not change. In The Heart of the Matter, Bill Waddel quotes Bryan Lund:

A select number of companies will "get it" by researching the history of TPS and understanding why TPS is what it is today, by educating themselves and through deep experiential reflection. Those companies will be the most successful in the world. The bulk of the companies in the world will continue to apply the tools, always scratching the surface, never knowing what is at the heart of TPS.

Right on. Bill goes on to talk about the importance of (in my words) transforming the way management thinks versus just applying some new tools without changing the current management beliefs. I completely agree that the largest benefits will go only to those organizations that change the way management thinks. I also believe that is a very difficult task.

I agree we need to find ways to improve the success of management improvement going forward. I agree we would be much better off if we could come up with ways to speed up the adoption of better management. But I really think we need to focus on how to be successful and then worry about speeding it up.

In Kaizen Priorities Part 2, Mike Wroblewski states:

This point leads to the concept of kaizen. I was taught kaizen is more than just continuous improvement of a process or cycle time focused, it is about people. The meaning of kaizen includes the development, training and improvement of people along with removing the burdens that people deal with in work.

As this is done I think we build the capacity of the organization to accept and move forward more lean thinking. Getting the management system to adopt the ideas is much more challenging (than starting to apply some tools) but I think progress is being made.

Still I am confident in the next 10 years there will be much, much more success at applying lean tools more widely than there will be in creating organizations that management is truly knowledgeable and effective in using lean thinking.

I would love it if I am wrong and many organizations adapt a lean management system but I think we have a very difficult task ahead of us. Hopefully the success of those applying lean tools will spur the interest of some using those tools to see what more there is to this lean stuff. And hopefully some of them will join our effort.

Hopefully this discussion can continue (for quite a long time) because I think we are only scratching the surface of what is possible.

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