Doing wrong things much better

I sincerely believe that experimenting with Lean tools was key to spread Lean awareness, ease the principles and tools acceptance and contribute to the Lean popularity.

This was particularly okay in the “tools age”, when Lean was understood as a nice and handy toolbox.

Yet limited and non sustainable successes were hints that Lean could not be “just a toolbox”. Jim Womack, Dan Jones, John Shook and others decoded and explained Lean’s underlying philosophy, the craftsmanship making tools even more powerful, able to transform organizations, save companies and yield significant and sustainable results. So much more than tools.

Unfortunately very few people and organizations understood and embraced Lean Management. This leaves most of Lean tool users stick to their favorite tools, and like kids fascinated by the hammer still run around looking for nails to hit. Any nails.

Ironically the most “successful” organizations with Lean succeed to do wrong things much better.

“successful” here means seemingly good with implementing Lean tools, most probably scoring good on maturity or awareness checks, yet not getting full benefits of Lean in terms of true performance.

What do I mean with “doing wrong things much better”?

Take 5S. The workplaces are neat, clean, free from clutter and with lots of visual indications about where to put things, how to behave and so on. The janitor kit is top notch and the daily a day weekly cleaning schedule is displayed. This good condition is maintained for years now.
That’s all good, but 5S is not about cleaning.

What would be expected after achieving to maintain a clean and neat environment is to eliminate the need for cleaning. Reinforcing cleaning discipline and improving cleaning tools is just doing the wrong thing (keeping on cleaning) much better.

Example number two: rolling out SMED for quick changeovers on all machines seems to be a good practice as the changeovers are necessary evils, do not add value and drain some productive capacity.

Eliminating all the wastes during changeovers is therefore a Lean driven organization’s objective, right?

No it’s not.

Machines with excess capacity vs. customer demand are no good candidates for SMED. The excess capacity should be used to change over more frequently, allowing batch size and Lead Time reduction (this is Little’s law) as well as enhancing flexibility.

Further reducing the changeover duration on machines with excess capacity for the sake of rolling out SMED and “be Lean” will burn up limited resources without benefits for the system as a whole.

  • How many additional widgets can be sold thanks to a global SMED rollout?
  • How much Operating Expenses can be reduced?
  • How much inventories can be reduced?

If these questions are left without convincing answers, the system will not have any benefits but will incur the costs associated with the global SMED rollout.

Applying SMED on a machine with excess capacity is doing the wrong thing (changing over faster a machine that does not require it) much better (it is faster indeed, probably to let the machine idle a longer time).

Example number three: Value Stream Mapping

Its ability to reveal the wastes and obstacles to smooth and quick flow made Value Stream Mapping (VSM) a highly praised and favorite Lean tool. It is used by waste hunters to surface the hidden wastes and improvement points in any process. This is typically a beautiful and strong hammer looking for nails to hit.

Not so seldom do the Value Stream Mappers map a process in search for improvements without consideration of the process’ usefulness. Spending time and using up resources to analyse and improve a useless or very secondary process is nothing more than doing the wrong things much better.

So, what’s missing?

Two things are usually missing in Lean-tools savvy organizations that would bring them to a next level of performance: a system-wide understanding of causes-and-effects and focus.

A system-wide understanding of causes-and-effects means stopping to believe that the system-wide optimum is the sum of all local optima. in other words, getting rid of wastes everywhere will end up with a waste-free system.

Systems are complex, with many subsystems interacting dynamically. Local improvements will not automatically improve the system as a whole because many local optima will compete against each others. An improvement here can severe performance there.

Without understanding the system’s physics and how the subsystems operate, the local improvement initiatives are very likely to end up unnoticed, or worse counterproductive from a broader perspective.

Once the system’s physics are understood, it is key to identify the few leverage points where an action will have significant effect on the system as a whole. Once these leverage points identified, the limited resources must focus on them and not be wasted anywhere else.

How can it be done?

The answer is simple: Theory of Constraints.

Theory of Constraints (ToC) is a body of knowledge that is all about finding and leveraging the limiting factor within a system: the constraint.

Once the constraint identified, the Lean toolbox as well as Lean Management principles and even Six Sigma come in handy to leverage it and get more out of the system.

Used in a synergy cocktail ToC puts Lean on steroids and yields incredible results.

As a focusing “tool” ToC avoids burning up precious and limited resources on the wrong subjects and wrong spots, avoids “doing wrong thing much better!”.

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Why is the Logical Thinking Process so hard to sell?

This is probably the greatest frustration for Logical Thinking Process (LTP) fans: why don’t more people get interested in? Why is the Logical Thinking Process so hard to sell?

Please understand “sell” with the quotation marks, I mean promote, advertise, grow the community, attract participants to seminars and courses altogether.

This post is a reflection of mine and an invitation to other LTP savvy and practitioners to share (please use comments) their analysis and thoughts.

The first reason is the weird sounding proposal to learn how to think. I got this reply of course.

Most people are convinced they are able to thinking in a logical way and don’t see the point learning anything about it. Those knowledgeable about the Logical Thinking Process changed their minds acknowledging they believed they were thinking logically until they went through the humbling experience of the LTP.

Make a clear statement that is both rationally sound and without any ambiguity is one example of the “thinking qualities” so many believe to master naturally but don’t.

Guiding an audience through a chain of causes-and-effects with rock-solid logic and in a crystal clear way is another “gift” commonly thought innate.

From what I’ve seen, everybody going through a Logical Thinking Process training course gets a lesson, regardless of how brilliant a speaker the person already was.

The second reason is maybe the jargon. Theory of Constraints (ToC) is full of jargon, metaphors and poetic names that do not help getting into it without a true motivation.

Other business philosophies and methodologies have their own lingo. Lean for instance “requires” to accept Japanese words without being a serious obstacle for its spreading.

The difference I see between Lean’s Japanese words and ToC jargon is that Japanese words are accepted because most people understand them through their translation / transliteration only. To them, those words have no other meanings that can be misleading.

In the Logical Thinking Process, “Evaporating Cloud” most people (with sufficient command in English of course) try to understand the literal sense in the context but can’t.

The Evaporating Cloud makes sense once the metaphor is decoded. It would have been so much easier to call it a Conflict Resolution Diagram (a proposed and sometimes used alternate name), which it really is, first hand.

Explanation about the sticking to the Evaporating Cloud can be read in Lisa Scheinkopf’s book “Thinking for a Change: Putting the TOC Thinking Processes to Use

Besides poetry and metaphors, acronyms are just as numerous. Take “POOGI” that stands for Process Of OnGoing Improvement in ToC’s lingo. The already popular “Continuous Improvement” was obviously not good enough and led to craft a weird-sounding new acronym, requiring more explanations and learning.

Even some ToC and/or Logical Thinking Process aficionados don’t like all the jargon, it is now the language of the ToC community and its mastery the price to pay for any new comer.

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Why the Goal Tree is more and more relevant

Command and control management style, based on standardized work and centralized decision-making, becomes increasingly irrelevant as more and more business environments become highly variable and the number and pace of decisions to make soar.

What is required is autonomy and accountability as well as alignment on a well understood Goal. The Goal Tree is an elegant solution for understanding what is to be done as well as the underlying rationale, for communicating it and assessing the progress.

This post assumes readers are familiar with the Goal Tree, if not they may get into it through my articles on this subject.

The limits of command and control management

In a hierarchical organization there are mainly two practical limits to command and control management :

  1. The number of people who can be reasonably be supervised,
  2. The speed of decision-making when information has to travel up and down the management structure.

The more standardized and stable the work, the easier it is to supervise a larger number of people with tight control.

As soon as work can barely be standardized to the details and/or is highly variable, supervision has to give up tightness of control.

When reactivity is required, decision-making has to come closer to the interface where decisions are to be made, otherwise the process would respond way too slowly waiting for the information to travel back and forth.

That’s why tight command and control can still be found in mass manufacturing but would not work (at least the same way) for customer service or front office. There, more than just plain execution of tasks in standardized processes are awaited. Employee engagement is necessary to satisfy the customers, especially when some situations require to “walk the extra mile”.

There is a third limit to command and control management which is social acceptance. In developed countries with highly educated employees there is a strong expectation for empowerment and autonomy. People want to find a good balance between their own satisfaction and the effort they put to create value for their organization.

With lesser (mass) manufacturing and more services and knowledge work, which implies lesser standard work in the classic sense and more need for quick and numerous decision-making, command-and-control management is increasingly inappropriate.

Autonomy and accountability

Granting more autonomy is mandatory to cope with both the actual business challenges and social aspirations. Yet autonomy without guidance and a minimum of control may well lead to something totally different from the expected outcome, or even to chaos.

As control in the former way of command-and-control is no more appropriate, the best way is delegate the responsibility to the doers and let them take accountability. Formal control is then lighter, people are empowered but have to take the responsibility as well as the autonomy.

Accountability for results is the essential counterweight to autonomy. But instead of having constant control, someone frequently “looking over the shoulder”, there are periodic milestones checks, short meetings, KPIs and dashboards to monitor the performance and progress towards the objectives.

Sense of purpose

Autonomy, accountability, empowerment are not enough by themselves to engage employees. They have to understand the purpose of their work and endorse it. They have to understand the link between what is to be done and the higher objectives.

Having a lot of freedom of action but not understanding clearly “what for” will not bring satisfaction as it lacks the sense of purpose. In this breaks down for the intermediate objectives to be met and the string of actions: what for?

The Goal Tree for guidance

The Goal Tree is the tool that shows the Goal to be achieved as well as the whole rationale linking the Necessary Conditions (intermediate objectives that must be satisfied) to the achievement of the Goal.

As such it is a roadmap and a great communication tool. It is easy to read and understand, can be left on its own for people to read or can be presented.

The Goal Tree provides guidance. The links between Necessary Conditions and their goals, which are Necessary Conditions to other goals higher in the Tree, are all based on necessity logic. This reads “in order to have A, we must have/need B”. It is easy to understand, to follow and to convince oneself about the logical soundness of the whole.

In the daily autonomous work, when in doubt about an action to take or decision to make, it is convenient to turn to the Goal Tree and check if the action of decision is aligned with the Goal to achieve or is it contributing to achieve some Necessary Condition ? If the answers are positive, go for it, otherwise don’t waste time and resources on something not contributing.

A Goal Tree is scalable

But what is also great with the Goal Tree is that is scalable. A Goal Tree is most probably a Tree made of nested Goal Trees. One Necessary Condition to the global Tree is someone’s or some department’s Goal. Therefore the underlying Necessary Conditions constitute a lower ranking Goal Tree, and so forth.

Goal Tree

Goal Trees are likely to go viral as their “beauty” and easy of use convince more stakeholders to start their own one to get clarity on their purpose and set of actions to undertake.

Ironically, I “infected” half a pharmaceutical plant with Goal Trees simply starting to use it for carefully planning a small local project. As the people to whom it was presented liked the Tree and immediately caught its potential, they started asking me to support them building their own or even gave it a try without telling anyone until it was ready to be presented.

Why the Goal Tree is more and more relevant

The Goal Tree enables the organization to grant more autonomy to the stakeholders while providing guidance and monitoring. It satisfies or supports most of the requirements for being responsive to customers, quick in new developments, clear about the objectives and so on.

It is a very good supporting tool for any business in which command-and-control management style is irrelevant, and those are expanding. I do believe the Goal Tree is more and more relevant.

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Problem solving: what was the last change?

This post could be a sequel of “Yeah, problem solving” in which I used Peter Senge’s quote: “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions”.

Quite often people we consultants meet are puzzled by a problem they can’t understand:

  • a reliable process or machine suddenly seems out of control,
  • steady performance dropped unexpectedly and with no apparent reason,
  • sudden quality issues with trusted supplies,
  • etc.

Our experience lead us to investigate the last change made, precisely because of the “wisdom” of Peter Senge’s quote: chances are that a modification (fixing a problem) led to unexpected Undesirable Effects and causing new a problem to appear.

Of course, the modification to look for is seldom the worried person’s ones, which he/she would most probably remember and perceive the possible cause-to-effect relationship.

No, the modification more likely happened outside the span of control and without the knowledge of the impacted people.

A modification leading to a problem in a lengthy process can happen far away (both in process steps and location) from the point the problem appears, letting the people perplexed about this reliable process now out of control.

Purchasing and procurement choices are unfortunately often the unintentional culprits, buying a slightly different grade of material, changing a supplier or accepting a low quality batch with the best intentions: cut costs or ensure timely deliveries.

When facing a puzzling problem the investigation should follow “the last modification path”.

This isn’t always easy though. The Undesirable Effects brought up by the change may be minimized or even neutralized for a while, long enough for everybody to forget about the nature of the change, when it happened and its consequences then.

That’s precisely why some industries with strong safety and regulatory constraints like aeronautics or pharmaceutical have to be cautious about any modification (needs approval after thorough risk assessment) and capture every information about virtually anything (dates, manufacturing conditions, persons in charge, certificates…), in case an investigation must find the root causes of a deviation (or worse), long time after the triggering action occurred.

When the problem cannot longer be neutralized by the former forgotten fix, it looks like a new problem.

Searching for the last change is often a good guess, yet not always leading to the root cause. Keep in mind that some modification correlate nicely with the apparition of the problem, but correlation isn’t causation.


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Yeah, problem solving

Most people love to solve problems and feel the satisfaction of getting rid of some nasty tricky problem. It’s an outdated but still lasting belief that management is about problem solving. Problem solving turned in some cases into the managers’ and engineers’ holly mission and in some minds, the more problems the manager/engineer solves, the better manager/engineer he/she is. This kind of problem solving can be addictive, hence the Arsonist Fireman Syndrome.

On the other hand, thanks to Lean Management, enlightened managers understand it is crucial to refrain from solving problems and develop their subordinates’ ability to solve problems themselves instead.

Note that all the above is about problem solving, not problem avoidance or problem prevention. And if today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions, as stated in Peter Senge’s “The 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline”, in a world requiring increasingly fast decisions (read solutions), we’ll never run out of new problems to solve.

So what’s wrong with problem solving?

There are at least 2 major issues with actual problem solving practices.

1. Quick fixes

Solutions to problems are most often quick fixes made of the first “best” idea that popped up. Problem solving is not very often a robust and standardized process, systematically rolled out. In fact formal problem solving processes seldom exist even if everybody is claiming solving problems.

If known, simple structured approaches like PDCA are disregarded and ignored, pretending the situation requires quick reaction and not “unnecessary paperwork!”

Often, the problem seem to be fixed, giving credit to the firefighters and reinforcing their belief in their “way” of handling.

It is not really surprising that the same problem keeps showing up as the fixes did not eradicate the problem’s root cause, and the problem itself was never really studied, hence understood.

2. No risk assessment / risk mitigation

If formal and structured processes to tackle problems are seldom, the solutions’ risk assessment is even more seldom. And if the rush to quick fixes leaves no time for properly analyzing the possible problem root causes, no need to mention non-existing attempts to figure out the possible risks these quick fixes bring with them.

Chances are that the ill-prepared and hastily put in place solutions generate unexpected Undesirable Effects. What may fix one problem may well cause one or several others to appear.

That’s how quick and dirty troubleshooting usually come at the expense of later longer efforts to cope with a situation that possibly grew worse, and how Peter Senge’s quote: “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions” makes the most sense.

What solutions?

  • Choose yourself a structured problem solving approach, there are several available. Try it and if proven suitable for your purpose make it your standard way of approaching a problem.
  • Make sure the implemented solutions will really kill the problem by measuring on a long time horizon if the trouble has disappeared for good. The Quality Operating System is perfect for that.
  • Explore the Logical Thinking Process, the sole complex problem solving methodology I know which includes a systematic “Negative Branch” check to avoid or mitigate Undesirable Effects as by-products of the implemented solution.

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Cobots: more cooperation than collaboration

Cobot is the contraction of “collaborative” and “robot”, name and concept of a new kind of robots able to work literally hand-in-hand with humans without a safety fence between them.

fraunhoferCobots are hype and the word tends to become generic for any kind of robot working in close proximity of humans. A study from the German FRAUNHOFER – INSTITUT für Arbeitswirtschaft und Organisation IAO (2016) about first experiences with lightweight robots in manual assembly* distinguishes cooperation from collaboration.

*“Leichtbauroboter in der manuellen Montage – einfach einfach anfangen. Erste Erfahrungen von Anwenderunternehmen

This post is in great part my translation of the original study, with my personal comments.

>Lisez-moi en français

The study summarized different combinaisons in the use of robots near and with human operators, leading the authors to propose 5 classes:

  1. Robotic cell in which a robot operates on its own, fenced-off from humans by a safety fence. In such a case there is no human-robot collaboration.
  2. Coexistence of robot and human, a case in which both are close to each other but without a safety fence, yet have no common workspace. The robot has its own dedicated space distinct from the human one.
  3. Synchronized work: an organization in which human and robot share a common workspace but only one being active at a time. The work sequence is like a choreography between human and robot.
  4. Cooperation: the two “partners” work on their own tasks and can share a common space but not on the same product nor same part.
  5. Collaboration: an organization with common and simultaneous work on the same product or part. Typically the robot handles, presents and holds a part while the operator works on it.

Based on this classification, the studies reveals that collaboration is still seldom. Workers and robots work side by side on their own dedicated tasks, letting me conclude that for the time being, “cobots” are more cooperative than collaborative.

Motivation for investing in this kind of more expensive robots is mainly productivity improvement and secondary objectives are improvement of ergonomics (avoid heavy lifting for example) and testing innovative technologies.

The choice of this kind of solutions requires also new planning and management tools as well as consulting. New standards and regulations are in preparation that must be managed by companies themselves, not the system provider. All this carries additional costs.

Companies with no or only limited experience with these kinds of robots remain hesitant, therefore the authors of the study recommend to implement step wise, starting simple and going from human-robot coexistence to collaboration.

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Why would I learn to think (logically)?

Most people are convinced of their ability to think logically and don’t see the point of getting a specific training like the Logical Thinking Process  training course.

Indeed, in some extend most of the people have an innate basic logical thinking way, otherwise our world would be pretty weird.

Yet it is also true that many people are unable to structure properly their thoughts and express their ideas with clarity and in a straightforward brilliant logical way. Even so it makes sense in their mind, what they try to share doesn’t always make sense to others.

How many times did you listen to someone and ask (yourself) “so what?” once the speech is over.

The importance of clarity

The first important thing to achieve is to express ideas with clarity. Clarity means that the idea, purpose, objective or goal is expressed in an unambiguous way, letting no room for misunderstanding or interpretation.

Clarity is always important. As an employee to be correctly understood by managers and colleagues and as a leader to be correctly understood by the team members or subordinates.

Imagine the consequences of an ill-stated objective. Stakeholders may misunderstand it and do something unexpected but aligned onto the objective they understood. Such kind of situation can be costly in terms of motivation – the stakeholders are feeling bad about their misunderstanding, resenting their leader for his/her poor objective statement and disappointed for all the energy they put into some action, for nothing – and in terms of resources and time wasted.

Ambiguous or ill-stated objectives are also welcome for some people to smartly escape some chores or refrain to commit to something they don’t agree, don’t want or don’t like. Room for interpretation is also room for later arguing. Something not desirable when some objectives are non negotiable.

Conversely, the inability to clearly explain what has been achieved, why and how it contributes to achieving some objective may make a team member look as a poor performer even so his/her contribution was significant.

It is frustrating to be a brilliant contributor to some project but unable to explain why and how. It is also frustrating to be unable to “sell” a brilliant idea to colleagues, the boss or customers.

Sound logic

The robustness of a cause-and-effect analysis or demonstration is also important in order to convince readers or listeners about the soundness of the ideas expressed.

According to the principles of adult learning, sense and purpose must be fully understood for adults to commit to something. If the rationale of some project or actions asked is not demonstrated in a clear and sound (robust) way, it will invite opponents to fight against it, making use of all “holes”.

Some undertaking presented in a fluffy way with many unanswered questions remaining open is scary. Opponents will have it easy to reinforce the doubts and fears of the audience by pointing out the inconsistencies and “holes” in the reasoning.

Lack of confidence is very likely to turn away customers, stakeholders or decision makers from the best of proposal. Instinctive risk aversion is probably more common than innate logical thinking.

Using “long arrows”

Many people with good logical thinking abilities will mentally cut corners and use “long arrows” in their demonstration. A long arrow is a metaphor for skipping several cause-and-effect steps linking an effect to a cause or the other way round.

While the link exists, it does not appear clearly. The audience cannot understand the rational link between an effect and a cause and may lose trust or interest about the presentation, get stuck because of this logical “hole”, doubt about the reality and validity of the ideas expressed, and so on.

Long arrow example

I have to make a presentation in building n°10, 15 minutes walking from here. It rains. I need an umbrella. I must borrow one.

“Could I borrow your umbrella because I must present my report?” I ask a colleague.

My colleague may ask herself what the link is between presenting a report and her umbrella. She will probably lend me the umbrella anyway, still not understanding what for. I did not feel necessary to explain the whole sequence of cause-and-effect, perfectly clear and logical in my head but strange when expressed that way.

Now imagine asking for commitment to something very important and serious that does not make sense because of long arrows.

Mastering logical thinking is also about avoiding long arrows and being able to detect them. I guess someone trapped with long arrows would be grateful for the help by someone seeing the shortcut and helping to reformulate the idea in a more robust and clearer way.

Mitigate the risk of “negative branches”

Negative branch is another metaphor used in the Logical Thinking Process, were logical relationships are depicting in logical trees. A negative branch is an undesirable effect or chain of cause-and-effect that “grows” from an action or decision taken.

Negative branches are often growing unexpectedly because the action was decided or decision taken without checking the possibility for things to go in an unexpected and undesirable direction.

Some fixes for a problem can result in other problems to arise, sometimes worse than the initial problem that was to be fixed.

Awareness and practice of the Logical Thinking Process hones the ability to “foresee” or at least to prevent negative branches and craft better solutions.


Basic logical thinking is a given and it may appear strange to promote “learning to think logically”. But it is as with many other things supposed to be “common” but aren’t. Common sense for instance is not so common.

Therefore there is a lot of room to improve one’s logical thinking skills.

Once introduced to the Logical Thinking Process, there are daily opportunities to hone one’s scrutinizing abilities. Newspaper, tv news, blog posts, speeches… are not always constructed with sound logic. Fallacious reasoning is easier to debunk, as well as surfacing false assumptions or “insufficient causes” on which some thinking are built upon. Negative outcome can be sensed and hopefully prevented.

Mastering Logical Thinking helps for better analyzing situations, understanding real causes of problem, crafting better solutions and expressing oneself much better.

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The fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives – Part 3: top-down and bottom-up

the-fallacy-of-bottom-up-lean-initiativesIn the first post of this series, I explained why bottom-up Lean initiatives have little chance to succeed. In the second post I switched the point of view and discussed the top-down driven Lean rollout attempts and their pitfalls. Neither is easy nor a sure way to succeed.

In this third post it is time to bring the conditions for success together.

Guidance comes from above

The system owners or top management are the sole legit to set the system’s / organization’s overall Goal. It is onto the ways(1) to achieve that Goal that all Lean initiatives must align. This is known as the “True North”.

Lean itself is not the Goal, it’s the preferred framework providing a way of thinking, principles, methods and a toolbox to efficiently achieve the Goal.

The Goal must be stated with clarity in order to avoid any misunderstanding and the Goal should be compelling for to motivate the stakeholders to play an active and motivated role in its achievement.

The worst Goal statement I was confronted with was “Survive another year”.

Stating the Goal alone is not enough. Top management should also set a limited set of top level indicators. In Bill Dettmer’s approach using the Goal Tree, those few top level indicators are called Critical Success Factors (CSFs). They are top management’s dashboard and ultimate steps before achieving the Goal.

Those CSFs must be set by top management for at least three reasons:

  1. It would be weird that anybody else defines the indicators by which top management monitors the progress towards the Goal it is responsible for achieving,
  2. Critical Success Factors are most often dictated by strategical analysis or benchmark, which are top management’s responsibility,
  3. Critical Success Factors constrain how the stakeholders will contribute to achieve the Goal. By this third reason I mean remaining consistent with the organization’s purpose, culture and values.

Once the Goal and Critical Success Factors are defined, enough guidance is provided from the top and it’s the subordinate level to take on and propose ways to achieve their goals, which are the CSF. The same will repeat with the next level and so on.

Lean-aware readers will recognize the cascading principle used in Policy Deployment, also known as Hoshin Kanri.

Appraisal comes from above too

If top management provided guidance, its role isn’t over yet. It is top management duty to make sure the whole organization works towards achieving the Goal and to remind and reinforce this guiding principle: working on anything else diverting resources from the achievement of the Goal is waste and is therefore invalid.

Remember, opportunities to improve are always infinite, while resources and time come in limited number. It is therefore mandatory to focus on leverage points and make wise use of limited resources.

I particularly like the Goal Tree because its logical structure lets no room for irrelevant nice-to-have that are immediately visible and their discarding rationally explained.

Enlightened management is about knowing what to do and what not do. And enlightenment can use a little help from a logical tool.

Without promoting the outdated command-and-control model, direction must be set top-down as well as the periodic checking of the organization’s right trajectory.

Constant attention is required over time in order to avoid any drift, deviant behaviors or loss of focus.

Help comes from above. Sometimes.

It’s still not enough to give direction and check the progress towards the Goal. Management’s top-down support is mandatory. By support I mean advice and backup when tough decisions need senior management to give input or take the decision, especially when those decisions lay beyond the field of authority of the lower ranking staff.

Support is also required when a settlement between conflicting objectives must be found.

From the Logical Thinking Process (Theory of Constraint) Body of Knowledge we know that conflict resolution should not seek a consensus (often disguised as “win-win” solution), but a way to “dissolve the conflict so that nobody has to give up anything except their beliefs in false assumptions.

Yet beware of drilling holes into the pyramid (2), meaning do not do what your subordinates have to do.

It is commonly accepted I hope, that leaders have to communicate the “what to change to” (the Goal) as well as the “why” of Lean transformation. It is up to the lower ranking staff in the organization to figure out “how to change”.

Achievement happens bottom-up

Since Policy Deployment or Hoshin Kanri are around, the cascading principle of top-down Goal setting and corresponding bottom-up answers is known.

Just as Hoshin Kanri, the Goal Tree uses the same principle: when the lower objectives are achieved, the corresponding upper objectives are achieved, and so on bottom-up till the top most objective (the Goal) is achieved.

Each layer of objectives is a set of Necessary Conditions for achieving the objective above. And here again, the Goal Tree provides the rational demonstration why employees can’t freely choose to work and improve whatever they want, even it seems an improvement from their point of view.

This disciplined approach may sound very constrained and limiting compared to other approaches asking staff for whatever improvement ideas. Maybe it sounds disappointingly controlled and restrictive but it makes no sense to burn limited and precious resources to “improve” whatever is proposed.

The lack of focus leads to many critics about lean lacking noticeable results compared to the time and money spent to improve. In this “open” approach stakeholders may have had their moment of glory when their proposed idea was validated, but their “improvements” didn’t impress nor last.


Neither bottom-up nor top-down initiated Lean journeys won’t lead to a Lean transformation success. The approach most likely to succeed is a smart mixture of top-down guidance, monitoring and assistance and aligned bottom-up contributions focusing on specific leverage points.

While top management provides the Goal to achieve and the framework within transforming the organization, the lower ranking staff make things happen working on meaningful and contributive topics.

Even if this approach looks constrained, it is more likely to demonstrate real improvement and proven, lasting benefits. Ultimately, this disciplined way should provide more satisfaction to all parties involved.

This ends the series of posts about the Fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives.

Comments welcome. If you liked it, share it!


(1) Theory of Constraints’ Thinking Processes would refer to these ways as “tactics”, while the Goal is a strategy
(2) An allusion about another one of my tales of the pyramid: the Swiss cheese

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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.


(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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Reflecting on Lean – Lean Confusion by Jill Jusko

Lean confusion is a 3-page article by Jill Jusko, posted on on Aug 13, 2010. Despite the time past, this article is still actual and may well continue to remain that way. This post is friendly recension of mine, having read it long after its publishing (2016 vs. 2010).

Jusko’s article starts on the love-hate debate about Lean, even if not expressed in those terms, between proponents crediting Lean (Manufacturing) for many measurable benefits while opponents deny them.

Why the diversity of opinions regarding lean? (…) answer is that people are confused.” both about what defines Lean as well as how to implement it.

In order to clarify what lean is, Jusko proposes Jim Womack’s definition “to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.” before quoting more of Womack’s in-depth explanation about Lean Thinking.

That’s the problem with Lean definitions. Either you tell them in a concise way, which may not suffice for the listener to correctly understand the intent nor grasp the full extend of it, or you’ll have to deliver a mini conference on it. None of these two options being certain to avoid misunderstandings or negative shortcuts.

In reality, the definition of lean frequently varies depending upon whom you speak with — whether it should or not.“ the article goes on. Yes, still true. This is depending both on who explains and who listens.

For instance, talking to a senior executive who has only very few time to listen to the explanation, an “elevator pitch” is required, even so “doing more with less”,  while perfectly true may end up with undesirable, mostly social, effects. On the other hand, going for a more detailed explanation may leave the impression Lean is difficult to explain – and understand – or the proponent is not mastering enough his subject to keep it short.

Even so Lean is strategic and should be considered so, many organization want the quick wins and go for the “tactical” implementation, which is more about the Lean tools than Lean Thinking and developing a Lean culture. “execution — or lack thereof — is a significant contributor to a lean implementation’s success” Jusko reports.

On page 3 of Jusko’s article, the “discussion” goes on in the section “what’s missing?” with two experts quotes, one about the necessary focus on machinery, the other about the importance of the human side. Both are right, but their explanations put that way may just… keep readers confused?

If I can put my two cents in, I would advise to go for the human side first. Changing anything on machinery with a deep knowledge about it can be long and deceptive, while properly using the available means – train people, organize work and flow better, avoid stoppages and breakdowns, etc. – yields higher return on investment.

The article ends with a kind of warning about asking “What’s Next Too Soon”, still true today as so many managers are convinced to “be lean” despite the facts and figures about their organization’s performance. Read “We are all Lean now. What’s next?” on this subject.

Few articles may keep their freshness after such a relatively long time after being published. It’s worth reading the original here:

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