Jim Womack’s hansei on where lean has failed

Lean leading figure Jim Womack posted a sincere and critical reflection (hansei) on where Lean has failed and why not to give up. I was impressed when reading it and it reinforced my respect and admiration for the author.

You can read the August 29th, 2017 post on planet lean (http://planet-lean.com/jim-womack-on-where-lean-has-failed-and-why-not-to-give-up)

>Lisez-moi en français

Jim Womack is someone to take seriously when he expresses himself about Lean, so when he posts an article titled “where lean has failed” it is probably not just a clickbait nor a questionable joke. Indeed, the critical reflection Jim shares is truly about failure from his point of view. And his point of view with regards to Lean is one that really matters.

Where lean has failed

The failure is, in Mr Womack’s opinion, manyfold:

  • It is the failure to get big organizations to transform themselves in a Lean way and have, at least, “another Toyota” emerging.
  • It is the failure to reverse offshoring, despite the rational proof that companies would be better off keeping operations close instead of trading labor costs for logistics and quality costs.
  • It is the failure to see disaffection among the workers and the growing acceptance of things as they are, without attempt to resist or change them in the Lean Community itself.

This hurts.

I am impressed by the courage to analyze and acknowledge that situation of someone who dedicated his life to promote Lean and share the knowledge. After all the enthusiasm, hype, hope and successes, this must be bitter.

Many people in Mr Womack’s position would deny the situation and keep going on, their ego not allowing them to acknowledge failure. Jim Womack not only has the courage to do it, but refuses to give up and want to avoid the “muda of denial about the situation”.

What I see from my narrower and European (mainly in France) perspective is consistent with Mr Womack’s analysis: the number of lean managers and continuous improvement champions soared in the last years but no company advertises or gets attention because of drastic improvement of its performances.

Furthermore, when called for assistance in companies, I am most of the time appalled by the (very) limited competences of the people in charge of Lean or operational excellence, a fact also reported by Karen Martin in a post on the Lean Edge https://www.theleanedge.org/256088-karen-martin-technical-proficiency-and-leadership-acumen-can-you-nail-the-problem-statement-first-time-right/

So yes, “doing Lean” is reduced to running small kaizen workshops here and there without consistency nor link to a strategic intent. It is merely about patching broken processes,solving local problems at best, or opportunistic muda hunting.

This keeps the additional layer of “Lean” bureaucracy busy and living easy with a lot of complacency about local qualitative results. Once a 5S workshop went through the first 3Ss, they’re done and feel “Lean” now. This is how Lean looks like too often.

No wonder the questions about “what’s next” or “is lean dead?” arise.

Considering Lean transformations, like many armchair generals giving strategic advice in hindsight, I would say that Jim Womack and people around him did well  addressing the diagonal of the 2×2 change matrix: promoting the “pot of gold”, metaphor for reward and benefits of the change, as well as warning about the “alligator”, symbol of the danger of the status quo. I remember well Jim recommending to have a burning platform or even create a crisis to get the change done.

This was the rationale promoting the change, the Lean transformation.

What could have been underestimated was the other, emotional diagonal of the matrix. Many of the decision makers are in love with their “mermaid”. By definition, a mermaid cannot leave the sea and therefore the decision makers stay put, close to the object of love and happy with the current situation. A happiness, they believe, they can enjoy ONLY in their current situation.

Maybe the decision makers are risk averse and see nothing else than the frightening perspective of the “crutches”, the metaphor for risks and big efforts. Indeed, many decision makers may jeopardize their actual position if they dare going for a disruptive transformation with unforeseeable results. Leading a Lean transformation requires leadership, courage, confidence and the necessary freedom to act.

Why not to give up

Despite this bleak picture, Jim Womack is not ready to give up nor let “the muda of defeatism” get in his way. If no other Toyota is likely to emerge, other success stories can be reported. Successes may be experienced in and with start-ups for example.

Acknowledging the limits of the actual Lean promotion and Lean methods training ways, mainly through workshops and workbooks, Jim calls for “thinking hard about more effective ways to pass lean knowledge along to the next generation”.

The last paragraph of Jim Womack’s post sounds like a firm resolution “to rethink the (Lean community) tactics, stick to its purpose, and better understand the challenges preventing it from staying on course”.

I encourage everyone to read the original post as well as to have a look on the comments.

Personal conclusion

It is a sad read, but I can only agree. I empathize with Jim Womack and again, I am impressed by his courage and humility.

Even if Lean loses its shine, I still measure what it brought – and still brings – to me. I think that true Lean-understanding people, once “infected”, will not get away from Lean Thinking. I will continue to promote and use everything Lean at personal and professional level, wherever and whenever it’s meaningful, which should be pretty often. Fashionable or not.

My personal belief is that Lean (Thinking) will keep lingering in operations, but the emphasis will probably shift upstreams to Product and Process Development. I also think that the irresistible wave of digitalization and all the news techs around smart factories will reshuffle the cards on how to plan, organize, drive and strive. All new opportunities to reinvent business and the philosophy, methods and tools that must come with.

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The fallacy of maturity assessments

Maturity assessments are a kind of qualitative audit during which the current “maturity” of an organization is compared to a maturity reference model and ranked accordingly to its score.

As explained in the wikipedia article about maturity model (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maturity_model), the implementation is either top-down or bottom-up, but from my experience it is mostly top-down. The desired maturity score is set by the corporate top management in its desire to bring the organization to a minimum level of maturity about… Lean, Supply Chain practices, project management, digital… you name it.

The maturity assessment is usually quite simple: a questionnaire guides the assessment, each maturity level being characterized by a set of requirements. It is close to an audit.

The outcome of such an assessment is usually a graphic summary displaying the maturity profile or a radar chart, comments about the weak points / poor scores and maybe some recommendation for improvement.

The gap between the current maturity and the desired maturity state is to then to be closed by an action plan or by following a prescribed roadmap.

What’s wrong with maturity models/assessments?

1 – The fallacy of maturity assessments

A maturity assessment would be ok if it would be considered for what it is: a maturity assessment. But the one-dimensional assessment is too often used as a two-dimensional tool by assuming that the level of operational performance is positively correlated to maturity.

In other words: the better the maturity, the better the operational performance.

Indeed, such a correlation can frequently be found, but correlation isn’t causation, which means that there is no mechanical nor systematic link between the maturity and performance level.

Even so the high level of maturity matches a high level of performance and vice-versa, there is no guarantee that performance will raise if maturity is raised.

Furthermore, studies have shown that there are exceptions and organizations with low maturity perform better than some high maturity ones. You may be interested reading my post How lean are you part 2, about Awareness / performance matrix about this subject.

Therefore the belief in the positive correlation between maturity and performance that makes it a kind of law is flawed or is nothing more than wishful thinking.

Many organizations boast about their high maturity, the number of kaizen events, number of workshops, number of colored belts, the number of training sessions or worker’s suggestions but there is nothing impressive to be noticed on the gemba.

Now I can understand why most managers and improvement champions like the sole maturity assessment:

  • it is much easier to do
  • the assessment items can be common to very different units with different activities
  • the general roadmap and global target are easy to set
  • maturity objectives are qualitative

On the other hand:

  • measuring overall performance that can be compared can be more tricky, especially in an organization with several different core businesses
  • it is annoying to admit that all efforts to raise maturity are not paying-off in terms of performance and painful to explain why

2 – The one-fits all maturity targets

Another problem with maturity assessment is that some corporations dictate a minimum maturity level regardless to local realities.

That’s how some subsidiaries doing well with regards to performance get bad maturity scores because they do not apply SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Die, an approach to reduce the changeover duration). The point is these subsidiaries have more or less continuous production processes with huge batch sizes that barely change. Why would they go for SMED when they don’t need it? The same case can be told with one-piece flow or heijunka (load levelling) enacted as a must do.

Others are scoring poor because they didn’t Value Stream Map (VSM) their processes. The fact is that those units had no problems a VSM could help to solve. The example list can go on and probably, dear reader, you have faced such situations yourself (leave your testimony in the comments..!)

3 – Doing it to be compliant, not because it makes sense

This third point is a corollary to the previous one. Because the objectives have been set at higher level and in order to be compliant, most unit manager will pay lip service to the dictated targets, get the scores good enough and be left alone once the assessment is done.

The local staff recognizes the nonsense of the demanded score, yet goes for the least effort and instead of fighting against the extra unnecessary work, chose to display what top management wants.

This the typical “tell me how you’re measured, I tell you how you behave” syndrome inducing counterproductive behaviors or practices.

While top management will be pleased with the scores enforcing its flawed belief, the local units managers did not embrace at all the practices, tools or methods prescribed. They only camouflaged the reality.

Wrapping up

Maturity assessment are not a bad thing per se, but their practicality and simplicity are often misused to assess more than just maturity (or awareness). This is most often misleading because of the false underlying assumptions and promoting wrong behaviors and practices.

PS: You may be interested to read Michel Baudin’s comments on his own blog about this post: http://michelbaudin.com/2017/08/22/the-fallacy-of-maturity-assessments-chris-hohmann/

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Is Lean dead?

Is Lean dead? is the provocative title of a podcast hosted by Mark Graban with guest Karen Martin. The question, the podcast description says, is “easy to discuss, but hard to answer”.

The reason Karen proposed to discuss this question is because of hearing and reading about “what’s next”, “is it time for something new?” and what seems to be a waiting for a “post-Lean” world.

There is an invitation to share thoughts about this, but instead of leaving a comment on Mark’s podcast-related post, I add my two cents here. I hope Mark and Karen won’t mind this piggybacking.

Some takeaways from the podcast

From 4:35 Karen frames the topic and from 6:05 she shares her thoughts, especially two reasons for the “what’s next?” question (rephrased by me):

  1. people don’t get great results from Lean and quit too early with the conclusion Lean doesn’t work
  2. the attention span, especially in business, is (very) short

By 19:45, Karen reminds the listeners that Lean is made of layers of quite “meaty” subjects and is made for constant learners. Yet Lean teaching programs cannot (?) do not go very deep into Lean beyond chosen tools. So it’s up to everyone to go for a never-ending learning journey. At 43:00 listeners get the wrap-up.

My thoughts on this

Ironically, the introduction of new methods and tools was once mocked as “the flavor of the month” with the preconceived belief that it won’t last. Now that Lean has demonstrated a longer lifespan than other management ways, it seems to be precisely too lasting in a time where  fashions come and go very quickly.

The methodologies life cycle

However long Lean is around now, it follows the same life cycle curve than others, made of a slow takeoff as long as long as no organization publicized extraordinary achievements with this approach or no book draw wider attention to it. Once the word spread, the methodology gets hype and many organizations and consultants go for it. After the hype spike, there is a loss of interest and a final plateau. In this later stage the methodology does not totally disappear but does not get the attention it once had.

In that regard, the methodologies life cycles look very much like Gartner’s hype cycle for technologies.

I started my career in the midst of Total Quality Management (TQM) hype, in the mid-1980s. Who aged less than 40 knows about TQM? It is still around in some form, like in the various ISO standards, but it does not get the excitement of the all the problem solving tools deployment TQM once had.

Similarly what happened to Total Productive Maintenance (TPM)? Parts of it is embedded in Lean and some companies keep TPM alive, but I barely hear anything about it anymore.

My friend and mentor Bill Dettmer witnessed the same phenomenon with Theory of Constraints. Not totally gone now, but barely known and not likely to get its fame back again. Six Sigma is said to be dead or is reduced to SIPOCs and DMAIC.

So maybe time has come for Lean to lose attention of the mass and remain a thing for true believers?

Quick wins and newcomers

The impatience about the post-Lean next thing can also come from the younger staff that did not experience the first attempts with Lean, when the organization was so inefficient that almost any structured tool deployment and kaizen events demonstrated significant quick wins. After a while and continuous sustained efforts, the remaining pockets of gains are few and hard/long to address. Newcomers experience Lean from hearsay or don’t notice anything about Lean because they are amidst of a more or less Lean environment. It’s just part of the scenery and nothing to get excited about.

Furthermore, many people have been repeatedly exposed to Lean methods and tools, have been involved in Lean workshops, kaizen events, sketched Value Stream Maps and identified wastes, sorted out, cleaned up and rearranged stuff 5S style. They share the feeling of being Lean, of being done with Lean.

The startup praise of failing fast and pivoting

My last thought about the possible fading of Lean is the growing influence of the startup movement and the praise of failing fast and pivoting. It keeps surprising me that failure can be praised, even so I understand the value of learning from failures. One Undesirable side Effect though may be the spreading of the belief that anything that does not work quickly is a failure – ok, we learned something – and it’s time to move on with something else.

Pivoting is getting away from an original idea that does not prove good fast enough and go for something else that can be 90 or 180 degrees from the original intent. What can make sense in a startup venture, stopping the experiment before the scarce resources are burnt up, may not be the suitable option where long commitment to cultural change and constant learning is required.

With allusion to Kahneman’s work, I think that for business there is a fast way and a slow one, and Lean is definitely a slow one.

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Jargon doesn’t make an expert

In a blog post I read the warning about candidates exaggerating their insight by using lot of jargon. It was about Lean Management. The author stated that when recruiting, mastering enough Lean vocabulary is important in order to catch candidates exaggerating their insight by using jargon. Any talented Lean manager can explain the same concepts without Lean management specific language, the author wrote, but inexperienced or unskillful interviewees may lean (pun intended?) on “concept-dropping.

Even so I agree with everything above, the heavy use of peculiar lingo is not specific to Lean and Lean “experts” are not even the worst.

>Lisez-moi en français

I remember a recent (July 2017) conference in which a speaker delivered a pretty convincing presentation about a somewhat uncommon approach we are familiar of. One of my colleagues, intrigued, went to see the speaker and asked him a question on a specific aspect only a true experienced expert could answer. This very question reminded the speaker of an important call he had to make and he vanished. He was indeed only “concept-dropping”.

Nothing really new. Molière, our most famous (French) playwright and actor (1622 – 1673) used to ridicule the physicians of his time in several of his works. Those experts were depicted as pompous and disputing in fantasy latin about this or that just to impress their audience or others fellow “experts” with fake erudition, while their patients usually were bleeding away.

In French slang, a “faisan” (pheasant) is a crook, a good-looking but stupid pretender. I used to hear fake experts being called “faisans”. Nice feathers, but that’s barely all.

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What is Lean Coffee?

A Lean Coffee is a semi formal* meeting in which participants choose the topics they want to discuss, vote for the topics and then discuss the most voted topics during a limited time period. At the end of the ‘timebox’, the group decides to continue or switch to the next if they feel they got enough.

*by semi formal I mean the meeting is structured, but either agenda-less or very flexible about contents.

Lean coffee start is credited to Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith back in 2009 in Seattle.

Advantages of a Lean coffee

Traditional meetings are moderated in ‘push mode’: the organizer sets up an agenda and invites participants. Those may have different interests in attending the meeting, ranging from very high to almost none. Nevertheless it is often difficult to avoid attending even if interest is low and there is seldom a way to influence the content as an attendee.

In Lean coffees, the moderator ‘pulls’ the topics from the attendees, which gives everyone an opportunity to have his/her point of interest discussed. If a proposed topic does not get many votes, the attendance may not be the suitable one or the topic is indeed of no interest.
Another specific meeting may be organized or the topic left off the list.

Pulling the topics from the attendees is also a way to show respect and fight the eighth muda. Jim Benson states “When we invite people to meetings and give them a strong agenda up front, we are completely robbing ourselves of the wisdom the attendees would bring with.
In other words, Lean coffees trades passive listeners for active resources and knowledge sources. Attendees are not supposed to leave their brains at the door but bring them in and use them.

Lean coffees are time-boxed, which forces to keep focus on the subject. The participants get a feeling of greater intensity and effectiveness compared to traditional meetings.

Here is a selection of videos about Lean coffee.

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5 things to remember about 5S

I assume readers are aware about 5S. The 5S are a methodology when beginners discover them through a structured way of teaching. They hopefully turn into an approach for organizing the workplace, and eventually a philosophy for those embracing the 5S principles for guiding their personal behaviors.

Read more about Approach, philosophy or methodology

Here are 5 things to remember about 5S:

1 – 5S look easy but aren’t

5S look disappointingly simple. The traditional learning way takes the beginners through a 5-step implementation program, usually one step at a time.
This tutored and hands-on journey makes the 5S look really simple and that’s a good thing. Yet 5S’ difficulty is nothing technical nor about the principles (“all common sense”), but about getting people to think and behave differently. This is about change management.

2 – 5S are too important to be delegated to interns

If you agree with point number 1 and on the importance of 5S as a necessary foundation to build operational excellence, then you cannot delegate the 5S rollout to someone who is not fully part of the organization and not having the required authority and leadership. Considering 5S as a secondary chore and delegating it to an intern is one common management mistake about 5S.

3 – Forget about Return On Investment

5S are a basic Necessary Condition for providing an efficient and safe workplace, and from then on developing operational excellence. As such, 5S are not rolled out in search for ROI. The gains, hence ROI is pretty difficult to evaluate. How to valuate 20 square meters of warehouse freed from clutter or a better looking, clean and stainless workshop?
If the decision to go for 5S is a matter of ROI, this choice is as meaningful as deciding the ROI of brushing teeth or showering is worth it. By the way, 5S are considered “industrial hygiene”.

4 – You’ll be never done with 5S

Even an organization managed to have a full cycle of the 5S completed, it can’t claim it’s done. 5S are simply never-ending. First because it is so easy to slip back to old behaviors, to take it easy on discipline. Second because the conditions change over time and 5S rules and practices have to be adjusted. Newcomers may join and have to embrace 5S as well. They have to be trained, mentored and maybe they’ll bring in new ideas worth implementing.

5 – 5S is not about housekeeping

This is a common misconception about 5S: it’s not about housekeeping, constantly scrubbing and cleaning. 5S is about avoiding to clean and scrub, about getting smart and avoid spilling dirt and creating mess.Even cleaning and scrubbing might be necessary at the beginning, it is advised to find ways to avoid it quick because nobody likes those chores. So 5S is not about housekeeping, 5S are continuous improvement.

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7 questions to help you reduce projects‘ duration

On one hand, in current competitive environment, time to market and speed to respond to customers’ needs is a Critical Success Factor, often more important than sales price.

On the other hand, projects templates used in companies have “grown fat” over time with an inflation of additional tasks, milestones and reviews, thus extending project’s’ duration.

>Lisez-moi en français

Why templates grew “fat”

Organizations dealing repeatedly with projects will soon develop templates of Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) holding the most current tasks and milestones. These canvasses speed up somewhat the project initiation and insure some degree of standardization.

Over time though, the copy-pasting from one project to the next, the addition of “improvements” and requirements as well as countermeasures to problems kind of inflate the templates and the projects. This in turn extends the project’s duration as every additional task not only adds its allocated time to completion, but also the safety margin(s) the doer and/or project manager will add on top.

Most of the countermeasures and special reviews were meant to be temporary, only for fixing specific problems. But hassle and lack of rigor soon let them in the next copy-paste template and over time their original purpose gets forgotten and those specific and temporary fixes end up being… standardized!

This is how loads of unnecessary tasks extend project duration without anyone noticing it.

In order to stick to delivering on due date, and in some extend reduce the project duration, Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) proposes some solutions. Yet those solutions mainly concentrate on a smarter use of the margins without challenging the value and necessity of the tasks themselves.

Therefore, reducing the margins and sharing the risks with a common project buffer, everything else remaining equal, the reduction of the total project duration is limited.

Now, combining CCPM with a Lean-inspired approach, projects can be shortened even more.

Challenging every task

The proposed approach is to scrutinize every task and investigate about its usefulness and its added value, as well as about the allocated resources to achieve it.

The idea is to get rid of unnecessary or low-value adding tasks cluttering the WBS and reduce the workload placed upon the scarcest and most expert resources, reduce the related costs and most of all reduce the time required for completing the whole project.

In a Lean Thinking way these kinds of tasks are wastes of resources and time and should be eliminated. If it’s not possible to eliminate them, is it at least possible to to reduce them to the bare minimum?

Here are 7 questions to help you surface these kind of resource drainers and waste generators in your WBS

1. Is this task really necessary? Why?

As soon as the purpose of one task is not obvious and cannot be simply demonstrated, some investigation is advised. Before rushing to the conclusion it useless and can be eliminated, one must verify that the outcome of this task is not required elsewhere in the project as an answer to some regulatory, standard or technical requirement.

The next question can help to answer this one.

2. What would happen if this task wouldn’t been completed?

A really useful task should answer a need. This one can be explicitly expressed in the requirements or in a procedure for example. It can also be implicit and naturally impose itself.

Most projects embed lots of reviews, gates and reporting points. These are resources and time drainer added by anxious project managers and customers. Yet not every project has very high stakes neither is jeopardized. What can make sense for a very sensitive project is not necessarily required for EVERY project.

What would happen if tasks and deliverables related to these reviews, gates and reporting would be omitted?
If a try shows nothing happens, it’s either an evidence of:

  • the no/low value
  • the lack of rigor in project management and follow-up
  • the lost sense of reviews as a management ritual

I remember a manager having put on hold projects for which project managers didn’t demand reports or reviews several weeks after voluntarily stopping to report progress.

It ultimately led to unclutter the project portfolio of several “nice-to-have” or “to-be-done-when-we-have-time” projects and free valuable capacity for sellable ones.

3. Who will benefit the outcome of the task?

In a well structured WBS no task should end “nowhere”. Who benefits from a task, usually the successor, should be directly readable in the WBS.If it isn’t the case, the value of a task as well as the robustness of the WBS must be challenged.

4. Is this task adding any value?

Value-Added is something the customer is willing to pay for. When assessing the value of a task, the right question is: can the outcome of this task be sold? Is anybody ready to pay for it?

An alternative in product, process or software development exists though, which is creating new, reusable knowledge (Lean Engineering/Lean Product and Process Development). This is considered a kind of investment.

If a task adds nothing worthy to a paying customer nor new knowledge to the company, it adds no value. To keep it or not sends back to question 1.

5. Does this task really require this resource? Why?

Once the task is assessed as useful, the next question is about the allocated resource.

One good practice is to allocate the lowest qualified resources to any task in order to save the more competent and expert resources, which are scarcer and thus more precious, from the mundane tasks that can be achieved by more common and cheaper resources.

If a task requires a scarce, expert resource, the next question is: how come?

Overburdening scarce and precious resources is one major reason for projects taking long time as the flushing of their tasks backlog requires the project managers to level the load, thus push back the completion of staggered tasks.

Many project managers compete to have the best resources allocated to their projects. Success and reliability attract attention and any project manager wants the best team in order to achieve his/her challenge. Always picking the same best ones ends up with overburdening them. Besides, not challenging the lower performers will not help them to improve.

6. Can it be done differently?

The alternate ways to consider here are both technical solutions as well as alternate resources.

  • Technically: can it be done differently so that the scarce bottleneck resource(s) is/are less required? Simpler solution may require less expert resource to implement it, for instance.
  • At the resource level, is it possible to delegate to a lesser constraint resource? Is it possible to subcontract?

These alternates should be considered for the sake of project’s duration reduction first, then for cost efficiency.

7. Must this task be done at that moment/stage of the project?

Some tasks have some degree of liberty with regards to when they must be fulfilled. Moving their relative place in the project structure may help limiting the overload and load levelling.

Wrapping up

Challenging necessity and contribution of all tasks in a project helps reveal those useless and of low added-value. Getting rid of them shortens the project’s duration accordingly, provided those task are on the Critical Chain.

This reservation is a hint about where to look first: the string of tasks on the Critical Chain.

The second benefit of this approach is to reduce the workload of the scarcest, most constrained resources, thus reducing the effect of load-leveling, hence project duration.

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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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The fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives – Part 1


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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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)

Summing up

  • 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”.

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From Obeya to wallpaper show room

When visual management turns into useless wallpaper

Having an Obeya is the latest – fashionable – sign an organization takes Lean seriously. The name itself sounds performing as is it is so strongly related to Lean.

Obeya may sound both exotic and performing, but is nothing more than a “big room”.

(I assume the perplexed Japanese are too polite to ask why so many westerners get jumpy when getting a big room.)

The bigger the room the longer the walls that call for something to display. And in order to make the obeya impressive, especially to visitors, lots of graphs, figures, tables, drawings, photos and maps must be displayed. So shall it be.

As a matter of fact, many companies display impressive walls clad of the previously mentioned printed material, plus sticky notes and hand colored symbols.

Well, many and most of the obeyas I’ve seen fail to turn to the war room where smart decisions are made to win the never ending battle against the empire of waste and its dreaded sneaky saboteurs named muda, mura and muri.

Getting closer to the display, it takes the outsider a while to find out the meaning of what is shown. I didn’t expect the pride about achievements to be that discreet, but it turns out, once the code for reading the charts has been broken, that the pride and achievement are still to come. Anytime soon suggests the presenter.

Not seldom are the prints totally outdated, and latest manual inputs (a place is left for them) missing. Key performance indicators graphs are plotted without any mention of unit nor indication of the target. Some data tables or audit sheets show the period between two events, confirming the lack of cadence.

Actions plans are anything but that. Fluffy wording is used to describe problems and even more fuzzy ones to describe the actions to take. The department in charge are mentioned together with a date (never know if it is the date the information is pushed to this department or the expected date of problem resolution), but nothing to track the actor’s acknowledgment, results nor to check off the action as successful.

The latest obeya with long walls full of complicated looking graphs and lots of other information turned out to be a kind of wall of shame, bluntly displaying and confirming what was happening on the nearby shopfloor. With time lag though.

Nevertheless, those obeyas just as the successful ones, set the scene for ritual meetings where the poor performances are “discussed” without many convincing decisions taken. My colleague describes those rooms as places where people shout at each other, standing.

Now, when I am invited to visit the Obeya, I expect to see visual management turned into useless wallpaper and the dedicated war room turned into a pathetic wallpaper showroom.

To end this post with a more optimistic tone, I assume I am only called to places in trouble and those working well simply do not need me.

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