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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Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are

This quote, often falsely attributed to Theodore Roosevelt (see Sue Brewton’s blog), is an excellent mantra for both personal and management use.

Too often when facing a problem or a challenge, individuals tend to push it to others, to complain about their insufficient resources and have great ideas for others instead. Think about the latest cost reduction program for instance.

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With the “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are” mantra in mind when facing a problem or a challenge, the right approach should be:

  • What can I do by myself? What is in my hand? What actions are within my scope of authority / autonomy, what can I decide / engage / implement by myself?
  • With the means at my disposal, what can I do? How far can I go and is it enough to achieve the goal? What do I really need more to achieve the goal?
  • From my position in the organization, what can I do? What can I decide? What can I influence?

Here are 3 situations the mantra can be great for.

1. Facing one’s fears

These questions should be part of a personal routine and a mental checklist. Especially when facing a scary or challenging situation, going through the questions shifts the focus from emotional perceptions to factual assessment.

There is probably more that can be done than instinctively perceived, so in order not to give up too fast, remembering the mantra guides to an inventory of possible options.

We could double the mantra by another maxim I’ve found in General George S. Patton’s memoirs: “Do not take counsel of your fears.”

2. Facing the boss

When discussing a problem or a challenge with the boss, the quick inventory of personal possibilities avoids disappointing him/her with a list of reasons why the problem is very tough to solve or the goal out of reach, with request for more means or with suggestions for others to act instead.

Only when one’s capabilities, available means or one’s position in the organization are truly insufficient to solve the problem or achieve the goal, the limitations of all possible current options should be fed back to the boss.

3. Facing subordinates

On the other side a manager who sees a direct report trying to escape his/her duty, demanding more resources or offering great ideas for others, the rephrasing is easy:

  • I ask YOU to do what YOU can do
  • I ask YOU to do with the resources YOU have
  • I ask YOU to consider the options YOU have from YOUr position in YOUr perimeter

Conclusion

“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are” is easy to remember, holds a lot of calm confidence and wisdom and can come handy in several situations.

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The man-machine system performance

When looking for performance improvement of a man-machine system, too often management puts emphasis onto machine or technology at large, ignoring the fact that humans associated with equipment, machines or technology form an interrelated system and consequently humans are the discriminating factor.

The fallacy of trusting the latest technology

There is a strong belief, backed up by vendor’s marketing, that the latest state-of-the-art high-tech equipment will bring a breakthrough in performance. This is welcome news for executives struggling to keep their organization up with competition and seeking a significant performance uplift.

Production managers, industrial engineers or system designers are big kids loving high-tech expensive toys, geeks of their own kind and dreaming to get the latest, biggest, fastest piece of equipment.

Once investment made, performance does not skyrocket though.

What happened?

Management blindness

Management ignored the human factor, i.e. people put in front or in charge of the new machine, the latest technology. An operator and his machine for instance are a system.

The overall performance of this system is determined by the human-machine pair, and guess what, the most variable and hardest to control is the human factor.

Unlike machines, humans have their moods, their worries, variable health and morale, private concerns and motivation issues. One day fine, the other day down.

Humans are not equal in competencies and skills. Some learn fast, some learn slow and some never really get it.

So what’s the point giving the latest top-notch technology to someone not competent or not motivated?

Yet this is most often what happens. Management assumes that the best of machines will make the difference, totally ignoring the influence of the people in charge.

The irresistible appeal of technology

Most decision makers and managers have some kind of hard-science background, got their degrees in engineering or business management. They were taught the robustness of math, the beauty of straightforward logic and to trust only facts and data.

When puzzled facing in real-life the highly variable and elusive nature of humans, they have a natural tendency to prefer hardware. This is something that can be put into equations and eventually controlled. This is what they are most familiar with or at least the most at ease with.

Humans are only trouble. No equation helps to understand their intrinsic drivers nor to reduce their variabilities. This is all about soft skills and psychological factors. Nothing for engineers and hard science-minded people.

Instead, they put a strong hope that the best and latest technology will trump the human factor, reduce it to a neglectable pain. But this never happens.

So again: what’s the point giving the latest top-notch technology to someone not competent or not motivated?

Leveraging performance

In order to improve a man-machine system, it is key to first have a look on the human factor, the most important one. Make sure competency is granted. If someone lacks the necessary competencies, performance is nothing than a matter of luck.

Beware of incompetent but highly motivated people though. In their desire to do well, they may have unknowingly potentially dangerous behaviours and/or take bad decisions. These motivated ones are likely to learn, do thing right but need training and guidance.

Not motivated incompetents are not likely to take any initiatives. They are the manager’s pain and burden and giving them better, faster machines won’t help. What’s worse with not motivated incompetents is passive aggressive behaviors that can lead to potentially dangerous situations as well.

Competent but not motivated people need and probably deserve management’s attention in order to get them into the winning quadrant of the competency-motivation matrix, aka skill-will matrix (top right).

There are the competent and motivated people who do their job effectively, often efficiently and without bothering anybody.

Competent Find a driver or a whip No worries
Incompetent Long way to go… Potentially dangerous good will
Not motivated Motivated

Competency-motivation matrix from a supervisor perspective

It is with these competent and motivated people that the limits of machines or technology can be found, as they will use them properly and purposely. Even when these performance limits are reached, it’s not certain that better planning and/or better organization cannot get more performance out of the system.

Think about quick changeovers and all capacity that can be regained applying SMED methodology, or rethinking maintenance in Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) style.

Wrapping up

When facing the challenge for improving performance, considering the way operations are done should be the first step. The second is to remember than investing in people is usually cheaper and more effective than investing in technology in first place, because a well utilized outdated machine will have better yield and be way cheaper than a poorly utilized state-of-the-art new one.

“Unfortunately” for tech-lovers who would prefer new “toys”, this investment in humans has to be a substantial part of their manager’s daily routine.


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Leader Standard Work

The very first time I heard about “leader standard work” and “scripted day” I was puzzled.

Production manager myself at that time, in my view management must be ready for fixing things and react to all the random events that rain down onto a factory shopfloor. How could a day made of fixing unexpected problems be standardized?

Reflecting on it I realized that a significant share of a manager’s day/week is repetitive routine and can be translated into a standard, improved, simplified, amended, and so on.

Without noticing it, I developped my own daily and weekly routines and was in fact rolling out my private standards.

In later years, when I visited numerous companies as a consultant, I saw many cases of company managers, operations managers and the like not having a routine and lacking daily guidance. They just floated with the stream of daily problems, often drowning in them. The long hours did not result in effective decision making nor appropriate support to their staff.

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Another common issue with management is the reluctance to be on the shopfloor. Highly educated (especially the French…) managers consider beneath their dignity to spent time on the shop floor. The common belief is that a manager is someone having an office and spending time in meetings or behind a desk, a computer screen and on the phone.

No surprise, when line or lower ranking personnel get promoted, they want the same status symbols and soon refrain returning to the shopfloor.

I remember one case in a big print shop. The production manager was a former very skilled and capable technician that got promoted. From then on, he claimed a desk near the top manager’s office and ‘managed’ not to return into the shop. When top management threatened him if he didn’t move his desk into the shop, he demanded a customized office to be build on a mezzanine. What he was truly looking for was a symbol: being literally placed above his former co-workers.

To overcome this phenomenon and as sad it is, a scripted standard work is a (good?) way to get those managers back where they should spend a significant part of their time: on the shopfloor!

The necessary routine tasks are easy to describe and standardize in order to foster consistency and sustained practice. Log sheets prove the standard was fulfilled or makes the deviation apparent, reinforcing accountability.

Understandably any manager, foreman or line leader having a great deal of autonomy and freedom to organize him/herself may not be happy with it at once. It feel like a straightjacket and a return or fall to lower status.

What most of those vexed managers would not recognize is their poor ability to organize themselves in an efficient way and/or to keep ‘their’ routine robust and consistent. How many managers deep dive and forget themselves into things they like and procrastinate or ignore what they don’t like?

The standard work is a means to help them (even against their will) to have their days properly organized and aligned onto the organization’s goal.

In most cases standard work helps to sort and refine the daily tasks to those really meaningful and important. Conversely it is a means to simplify and/or ease the routine, saving fatigue and time for more important / interesting occupation.

Of course such a standard work must keep large time periods free, in order to cope with the unexpected events and urgencies.

It is also wise to coach the managers on their standard work, especially what to look for during routine tours or how to gemba walk. True listening capability when interacting with lower ranking managers and shopfloor personnel is also something that is not easy to develop alone.

How to engage, encourage, energize, praise or reprimand people is also something (newly promoted) managers have to/ should learn from a seasoned and more senior one.

Regular coaching with different coaches is a good way to hone the different skills and avoid complacency.

After a while, the standard will become the new routine, the new normal and the initial resentment vanish.


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How corporate Lean programs spoil golden opportunities

This is the sad and true story of a manufacturing unit of a major manufacturer in his industry.

This company has a corporate program to roll out Lean, with permanently appointed staff to support it. The Lean organisation is structured from a corporate level to sites representatives and staff appointed to support departments within the plants (Lean Promotion Office).

The corporate program is consistent and fine, designed by subject matter experts and tailored to fit both the activity and corporate culture. Such an ambitious program has a phased agenda, milestones, audits, reviews and everything necessary.

The Lean Promotion Office supporting team is therefore very busy breaking down the corporate rollout plan and preparing training sessions, coaching sessions, reviews and everything necessary.

Everyone who has witnessed such organisation and corporate rollout knows that the supporting team tends to become a swelling bureaucracy of its own, with very busy people seldom seen on shopfloor.

Comes a day in a department when the production must be stopped for supply shortages and unfortunately the stoppage lasts several days.

Once the things jobless personnel could do were done, they were left unoccupied and all by themselves, in a kind of readiness, the production being assumed to resume anytime soon.

Which did not happen, and boredom became the daily normal.

This is when the consultant regularly visiting the department shows up, and a bit upset by the waste of human skills, proposes to organize a much needed initiation to 5S.

That can’t be done.
– Why?
– 5S is scheduled later in the year, according to the rollout plan.
– But people are available now and with the current department (messy, dirty) condition it is a golden opportunity to both train people and improve the condition!
– Nobody is available for the training.
– But I can do!
– This is not compliant to our rollout plan and procedures.

As incredible it sounds, there was no way to organize the initiation and no manager would back up the proposal nor agree to give it a go.

I assume the Lean Promotion Office members are measured according to their (planned) activity and weren’t eager to mess up the plan, take any chances to displease their managers.

Production managers were blind to the situation and not knowing much about 5S, could not see the opportunity to have meaningful occupation for their staff.

To add to the sadness of the situation, when 5S training time will come, the situation may not offer the same opportunity: machines may be running, everybody may be busy and the mess and dirt may not be that visible as it was during the stoppage.

5S training will then probably be done with case studies and simulation, on restricted area at best, in order not to disturb production. This is where the golden opportunity is really lost: using a real case to act on, learn and improve.

Postponing the training and improvements to later scheduled time slot will make the actual 5S related problems last longer, cost more and waste the opportunity.


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What coaching means to me – part two

A coach is a person able to teach, train and advise someone, to improve skills and/or practice and to make his/her coachee reflect about achievements and how to improve from the lessons learned.

It takes some experience and skill to coach others, that’s why I am not comfortable hearing the words coach or coaching that often is business, these words being used way too lightly in my opinion.

>Read What coaching means to me – part one

Many of the alleged coachings are nothing more than a kind of facilitation or workshop moderation. Coaching may sound better and please the facilitator’s ego, but it isn’t coaching.

What coaching means to me is living a significant part of time with the coachee on the shop floor or gemba (can be an office, warehouse, hospital, whatsoever) and making use of real problems to help him/her to improve his/her ability to cope with unexpected and random situations.

It may well need a structured approach, a set of principles, methods and a toolbox, but real-life problems are seldom solved in the way the examples in training classes depict.

Many of the real-life problems need a bit of creativity because they may be similar to previously experienced ones, but slight differences can hinder the same solutions to apply. A coach should have the ability to find a way to overcome this kind of difficulty and design a suitable experiment for solving the problem.

When a problem arises, it is an opportunity for the coach to see how the coachee is approaching it, and if needed give some advice and later feedback.

The coach does not need to know the solution and have answers to everything, but at least have the ability to analyze and make out a way to attack a problem in a structured way, then help his/her coachee to do the same without too much interference. After all, it’s the coachee’s golden opportunity to learn.

Except when regulatory constraint, if so-called coaches keep sticking to the book or procedures and are reluctant to “experiment”, it’s usually a sign of lack of experience and/or maturity. The stronger the cling, the less useful the “coach”.

The “coaching” mentioned in part one is therefore more about procedure reinforcement than real coaching. Its value lies maybe in the rollout of the Lean program but not in developing people’s skills.


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What coaching means to me – part one

In business we hear “coaching” a lot, maybe too often. While passing over knowledge and experience or helping people to improve a practice is a good thing, the way I see coaching done is far from delivering this kind of value.

The latest case is with a large corporation having launched a Lean program – even it isn’t called Lean nor program – with a framework of principles and chosen tools, and “coaching” as a way to cascade it.

The coaching is much inspired by Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata and looks good on paper. The limitations and flaws appeared when I witnessed it being done.

The coaching starts from the top of the hierarchical pyramid and is supposed to be cascaded down by each layer to the next subordinate one.

The “master coaches” come from a central Lean Promotion Office, young brilliant people familiar with the theory and trained to support the corporate program. Very few have any practical experience with applying Lean methods, tools or techniques.

These coaches will set appointments with managers and train and coach those to gemba-walk and carry out a much scripted routine. The coaching is merely explaining the procedure or script, give some side explanations about purpose and consistency within the corporate program and most of all, stand behind the coachee with a kind of checklist and make sure the procedure is accurately followed.

Obviously what matters to these coaches is the compliance to the scripted routine. If the gemba-walker is unable to notice problems and improvement points it is unimportant as long as the routine is carried out correctly. I assume the coaches would not be able to spot the problems and improvement points neither, as so many problems are left unattended even after series of scripted gemba walks.

Once these routines are consistently carried out in appropriate manner, the coachee is qualified to coach his/her subordinates in a similar way.

The cascading coaching is planned over the year and it will take about that time to get a department through the whole cascading process.

Unlike Mike Rother’s recommendations, these coachings are not everyday practice, but scheduled events. As you can guess, the middle management considers it as additional chore, and goes through it dragging feet just to be compliant and avoid trouble.

>Read part two

You may also like: You don’t give me answers, you ask questions


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(At least) three reasons why you should not run your business with superheroes

Since I came across the quote of Fujio Cho* (Toyota chairman) about broken processes requiring extraordinary people, I keep wondering how many of the businesses I see are relying on superheroes. Superheroes are wonderwomen and supermen, those skilled and highly dedicated people who run processes or whole businesses ordinary people would not be able or willing to run.

*”We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant processes. We observe that our competition often gets average (or worse) results from brilliant people managing broken processes.”

They cope with situations others would just not start trying or give up quickly, because of broken processes, poor working conditions, work load or any combination of the like.

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Instead of fixing the processes or improving work conditions, so that they can be run by ordinary people, business owners or management invest tremendous efforts in recruiting superheroes.

Here are at least three reasons they should not.

1. Superheroes come in limited number

Superheroes aren’t common, otherwise they’d be ordinary people, not superheroes.

Hence finding the good fit takes time, costs money and efforts.

The same resources (time, money, efforts) could be allocated to fix the processes in order to be run by ordinary people.

For some strange reasons, management keeps searching for superheroes.

2. Superheroes get tired too

Sooner or later playing superheroes will exhaust them, or they get bored when the initial fun has gone.

Superheroes are aging as well, they may aspire to something else than running rubbish processes over time.

Because of 1 & 2, even with some longer lasting heroes coping with the mess, the organization will always be at least one short.

3. Superheroes have ambition or personal goals

a. Superheroes are likely to get promoted.

They are usually noticed and appreciated and their skills find many other applications elsewhere in or outside of the organization.
The trouble is once promoted, who will take care of the processes still in their same poor state?

b. Superheroes may leave the organization for personal reasons, getting married, change their career path, raise a family…

When Superheroes leave the organization, for any reason, they leave the broken processes.

Therefore and again, investing in fixing processes is more sustainable.

But for some strange reasons, management keeps searching for superheroes.


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Four good reasons to take a break if you are to remain efficient

Deep involvement in a project, problem solving or coaching really drains one’s energy. A periodic break is therefore mandatory in order to remain efficient. Here are four good reasons for it.

1. Recharge

Everyone needs a breather now and then. The tenser the situation, the more the break is needed.

Getting away some time from a project or an assignment helps recharging, gathering new energy and keeping fresh and motivated.

It does not have to be long but long enough to get the feeling of a real break. An extra day or two right before or immediately after a weekend for example can be good.

Taking a break doesn’t mean take holidays. Working on something else or seeing something else for a short period is usually enough.

2. Get rid of mental clutter

Taking a break is also an opportunity to get rid of mental clutter accumulated during the deep dive into the project or problem solving.

Often one just gets caught in a vicious circle, spinning around with a problem and not finding out.

Take a break.

When coming back, the brain is like reset and the mental cache emptied, ready to process new data or analyze differently.

3. Avoid complacency

Staying too long on the same subject may end up with complacency. After a while, abnormal conditions seem less shocking, ways are found to work around blockades rather than removing them and so on.

A breather helps to stay sharp, critical and to avoid complacency.

4. Look at the broader picture

Finally, stepping back simply helps to look at the broader picture. It’s easy to get drawn down into details and losing Sight of the Goal, of what is important.

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