Yes, Lean initiatives can be started bottom-up, but I doubt they’ll get very far and last for long. Here is why.
Bottom-up Lean initiatives, e.i. improvements, are opportunities for improvement found by shopfloor people, line leaders or shop management. “Improvement” is most often understood in a broad meaning and bring up suggestions ranging from make worker routine job easier, fix small problems, make the workplace more enjoyable, achieve their work more efficiently and maybe add some value for end customers.
In order to awaken the staff to finding such opportunities, an initial training about Lean principles, the seven wastes (the infamous muda!) is often necessary, with “kaizen events” organized to hunt wastes and frame the initiatives.
Most often the improvement suggestions and bottom-up Lean initiatives remain in this format: a moderated, paced, focused and framed series of periodic workshops. The events are planned and not problem-driven, done when the workload allows it, which means when people have time and management agreement to distract some resources and time from regular operations.
Here lays a triple pitfall:
- People do not develop an autonomous Lean Thinking culture, but keep playing the assistants of some appointed Lean “genius”(1). If the latter is not available, the event cannot happen (so common when “black belts” are mandatory) and chances are that the knowledge gathered during these events will not remain with the team, but go away with the facilitator instead
- Problems are not tackled when they appear, failing to use the opportunity for learning from a real, actual and acute case. The muda hunters are set loose to “find something to improve” when the kaizen event is scheduled
- As the kaizen events are scheduled and too often subordinate to low workload, the “continuous improvement” is erratic in frequency, inconsistent with learning, problem solving and likely to be stopped for good at some point because “We have no time”.
The format and drawbacks of those events is not the sole reason for making me doubt about bottom-up Lean initiatives being viable. Those bottom-up ideas and initiatives assume that the suggestions will lead to real improvements.
Yet how many of them are nothing else than improving the workplace comfort, changing something to workers’ preferences or taste while assuming this will ultimately lead to (noticeable) performance improvement?
I’ve seen many such “improvements” agreed because management wanted to show willingness to back up bottom-up suggestions, foster workers’ commitment and not discourage them from the beginning. Other suggestions were agreed on the belief they would indeed improve “something”.
Yet most often the evidence of the improvement is not delivered, and no kind of measurement is set up to demonstrate the gain. I am not even expecting for an indisputable demonstration of the cause-and-effect relationship linking the “improvement” to a positive increase of performance, a trustworthy correlation would suffice.
Worse, the good idea in say manufacturing is to have parts unpacked and presented ready to assemble for assembly line workers. The unpacking and display of parts is pushed upstreams to the logistic team feeding the lines. As production lines productivity is measured and closely watched, their efficiency may well go up when the parts preparation is get rid of.
For the logistics team it’s another story, it must absorb additional workload without compensation and as usually its productivity is not measured, nobody sees the waste simply moved to it, perhaps at the expense of other useful activities.
Even worser: Value Stream Mapping is one of the most popular Lean tool and used as a waste revelator. So Value Stream Maps flourish and again muda hunters are set loose to eliminate waste. What the mappers overlook in the first place is the value of the stream they are mapping. And sometimes the process under scrutiny is a pure waste that is noticeable when seen from broader perspective, or higher altitude if you will. But this vantage point isn’t familiar to shopfloor staff.
Isn’t it ironic they put means and time to optimise possible waste? A Lean-deadly sin…
What happens so often next with bottom-up initiatives is top management asking where the beef is. After all, time and resources have been used to “improve”, so where is the return on this investment? And getting no convincing answer, the whole is finally put on hold and frustrated stakeholders conclude that Lean doesn’t work. (2)
- Scheduled and framed workshops are not the best way to develop a Lean culture, especially if it’s the only “continuous improvement” mode
- Teams remain helpers to the appointed Lean / Six Sigma champion, barely develop a Lean culture
- Bottom-up initiatives are too often based on unchallenged assumptions regarding the outcome, started on wishful thinking
- Middle management often lacks the courage to discard suggestions that will obviously not lead to meaningful improvement
- Improvements are too often local optimizations at the expense of the greater good
- Shopfloor staff don’t know the bigger picture, hence improve what they see and know, reinforcing the previous point
- Proof of the reality of the improvement is not systematically delivered
At some point top management will put an end
(1) “Genius with a Thousand Helpers”, in Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”.
(2) I do not approve the way some companies require a calculation of a ROI prior to any change, because the way many costs are defined are questionable. Sometimes improvement are hard or even impossible to express in numbers: reduction of Lead Time, neatness, morale…That’s why I mentioned “correlations”.