The fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives – Part 2: top-down is no better

the-fallacy-of-bottom-up-lean-initiativesIn the first part of this series I shared my doubts and experience about bottom-up lean initiative to be successful and sustainable. In this post I switch position and explain why top-down Lean doesn’t always work either.

One common trap top management falls into is to believe that orders given will be carried out as expected and therefore managers save themselves the pain to go checking on shopfloor (1).

A variant is putting instructions in a procedure or on a work instruction sheet and believe it is all that is needed for things to happen.

The reasons for the expected outcome not to happen are numerous:

  • Orders may not be well understood
  • Instructions may be impossible to follow
  • People simply do not know what or how to do
  • People in charge resist the imposed change
  • People don’t know what the expectations are

For this last point, I came across several organizations where top management was aware about Lean principles and techniques and believed the lower levels were familiar alike.

They weren’t. But as none of the top managers went to check, the belief lingered, the performance remained disappointing and the blame was put on middle management.

When enthusiastic management promotes a Lean rollout without getting traction from shop floor, it’s like the top of the pyramid starting off while the base stays put, something I described in my tales of the pyramid series (1).

Another puzzling rollout I heard of was from a large corporate with a dozen of sites. The top management decided to go Lean and in order to get things rolling asked each of the sites to select a pilot perimeter, value stream map it and improve the selected processes.

I asked the central PMO manager if the sites had a common corporate Goal to align onto. No he answered, we’d like to start with local demonstrators to prove Value Stream Mapping is a powerful tool for improvement.

But what if the improved processes are unnecessary in regards to corporate strategy? How will you cope with frustration if the improvements done locally must be reset or discarded because of the corporate roadmap to come?

I got no answers to those questions and could not do any business with that organization. I never heard anything about operations’ improvement and years later I was told that most of the people from central Lean office moved elsewhere.

To me it seems that this attempt was nothing else than a large-scale muda hunting, without any central coordination than the tools and methods to be used, mandatory.

There are also many cases were CEOs or senior executives got hooked by a Lean conference, a Lean-praising speech or a good read. They appoint a champion or a consultant and assign her/him to deliver “the same”. Of course there is no deep understanding of Lean, only the desire to get the same alluring outcome.

What follows is most often a failure, even so it was strongly “supported” from top-most authority. One of my greatest Lean successes was with a medical devices manufacturer calling for help after the internal team totally messed up with their Lean attempt (2). Everyone was so upset with that experience that “lean” was a forbidden word. Alas not seldom a case.

What we did to straighten it out was… Lean in essence, just camouflaging it with other wording.

Imposing Lean from top-down has probably the same failure rate than bottom-up attempts, or even bigger when stakeholders do not understand what is asked and what for .

Top-down support is mandatory in a Lean transformation project. It is a necessary condition to success but by no means a guarantee for success!

In part 3 of this series we’ll see how to set better conditions to succeed with Lean.

Footnotes

(1) Top management is often cut off from the reality as I explain is the Tale of the pyramid – Head first. Top managers may also like to stay in their cosy ivory tower, another tale of the pyramid
(2) It takes more effort than read and learn from books to get good results with Lean tools and techniques. A deeper understanding of the underlying philosophy is learned the hard way, experimenting and reflecting on successes and errors

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