5 ways Lean guys trigger rejection on shopfloor

Lean guys are not always aware they triggered rejection of their ideas or suggestions themselves, only because of their behavior or their disregarding of some elementary rules.
Here is a short list of 5 ways to trigger rejection on shopfloor.

1. Play the sensei

A sensei, in lean lingo, is a recognized expert, which in japanese style would visit a facility, appraise and give advice in a master’s mysterious way, so that the followers must deeply reflect about its meaning and the hidden but valuable lesson.

Probably every Lean guy’s dream is to be called sensei some day, meaning someone recognizes his/her expertise and asks for guidance and mentoring.

Yet playing sensei without being asked for nor called that way will pretty surely upset people.

To-be senseis I’ve seen like to look down on people with contempt and call everything rubbish.

A sensei being a sensei, he/she is not supposed to explain why something is rubbish, it’s up to the shopfloor people to discover it. A practical way to appear, appraise and disappear without being bothered with details nor explanations…

About such a “sensei”, some upset people said to me: “he just dropped the grenade and left”. On another occasion, the “victim” of such a sensei told me: “he just goes around, says it’s rubbish, but gives no example of what is good or what he wants!”.

While true senseis deliver valuable lessons, even in a strange fashion, self-promoted senseis just flatter their own ego while parading on shopfloor.

2. Lecturing people

Newcomers from a kaizen or Lean promotion office, often young people that graduated recently, tend to go to shopfloor and evangelize everyone with “You should” or “Why don’t you”.

These talented young people have gotten a lot of theory and probably know a lot, at least through reading, but “You should” is difficult to take from someone having barely the same number of life years than others have years of (hard) work experience.

“Why don’t you” is an awkward attempt to apply asking the five whys or to camouflage the lecture with a kind of smart-sounding suggestion. The way the full sentence is spoken out is received just as insulting as the blunt “you should”.

The lecturers too often know little if anything about the shopfloor condition and their questions and suggestions reveal their lack of awareness of the local conditions.

That’s how a new engineer from another company, allegedly far more advanced regarding Lean maturity and appalled by what he saw, got everyone hating him at once for lecturing aggressively the old breed on shopfloor.

3. Assuming everybody know the basics

This is a kind of variant of the previous, savvy Lean guys coming to shopfloor and without trying to understand the local current level of understanding, keep jargoning.

Lot of people do not like to admit they don’t understand, leading at best to a dialogue of the deaf between confident jargonists and proud ignorants.

Worse, when the jargonists notice the ignorance, they likely go for “What? You don’t know…!?”

It is easy to fall into the trap when nice boards and posters suggest the area has had some training and has some Lean tools in use. Which leads us to the next rejection-triggering behavior:

4. Hang up posters and vanish

Hanging up poster, display new or modified procedures and vanish without a word of explanation, preferably doing it when nobody is on shopfloor and letting everybody clueless about what has to be done is another fine way to show disrespect and trigger rejection.

It could be nothing more than the assumption from the Lean guys that first line of management will take over the explanation to their staff, while shopfloor management assumes Lean guys will instruct operators.

After a while, when searching the cause of boards not used or procedures ignored, one will discover that there was no instruction, not even information about the change.

After a while and some of these experiences, operators will come to the conclusion it is all optional or for window dressing only. Shopfloor management itself will sabotage passively by refraining to give explanations and instruction in place of the Lean team.

5. Changing things without people

The last fine way to fuel rejection is to make changes without people from shopfloor; after work or on weekends.

Nobody likes to have his/her workpost changed without notice, information and asking anything. More often than not, the change prove inapplicable because some important fact was ignored.

Would the initiators have asked beforehand, the operators or shopfloor people would have explained. But, the arguments of shopfloor people are often interpreted as a mere resistance to change, therefore it was thought better to do without them.

I remember factory workers mocking the executives who came a saturday for a 5S action with the CEO and having the factory paralyzed on Monday morning. Jigs and fixtures had been thrown away as rubbish pieces of metal by the ignorant executives.

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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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Start less, finish more


Chris HOHMANN – Author

Four words of wisdom spoken by a manager in a department notorious for its long lists of actions (note I didn’t write action plan) and promises but a lousy transformation rate.

Looking closer on their usual way to solve problems or work on improvement revealed a common flaw in many organizations: the open loop.

The open loop is the belief that things will get done (simply) because someone put them on a list and presented them, without a control and feedback loop to ensure things really get done.

Usually the presenter refrains from any formal commitment and, as so often, what is called an action plan is a mere brainstorming or a wish list at best.

Complacent managers don’t demand due dates nor ownership, accountability neither clear assignment of tasks to someone.

As no one will track and check the real outcome of envisioned actions, they’ll get done only if someone has a personal benefit in it and/or by goodwill.

Complaints for the status quo remain rare as complainers fear being put in charge of carrying out or solve what they complain about.

Thus, no complaints, no problem.

Apparently, as nobody complains, issues seem to be solved, confirming that no closer tracking is needed.

The issues remaining hopelessly unsolved, people keep suffering in silence or find ways around, by-passes, arrangements, usually off standards and uncontrolled, sometimes hazardous.

These ‘solutions’ bring new problems, themselves being handled in the same way and gnawing on performance.

When the wind suddenly change, with a new demanding boss in charge usually, the amount of corrective actions could sweep tsunami-like onto the staff.

There is where the four words of wisdom come in: start less, finish more.
Way too late though.


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Tales from the Pyramid – the Swiss cheese

TfP_swiss_cheeseSwiss cheese as most people imagine it is a holed one. The pyramid in this post looks much like a portion of Swiss cheese, with holes in its middle layer. These holes stand for rogue middle managers who don’t align to corporate objectives, resist change or passively sabotage improvement programs.

Their behavior have various backgrounds and reasons yet impair the dependent departments and/or organization-wide initiatives.

Not playing by the rules while being in charge of a department is like leaving holes in the organization.

They are expected to carry out or support projects but don’t. In most cases they resist change fearing to lose the prestige and advantages of their current position. This is usually the case with people having (unexpectedly?) reached a top position, given their background, career trail and competencies.

High potentials usually do not worry about changes and challenges, they’re ready or even longing for them..

In industry I often saw this with maintenance managers, once good techies or engineers, promoted because of their technical skills but poor managers.

While struggling with management chores, they gradually lost their keenness about technique. Younger newcomers with technical degrees are more up-to-date and eager to climb the promotion ladder.

For the outdated managers, survival is often granted by their long experience and withholding information and knowledge, faking their expertise. Few knowledge is usually captured in (IT) system and even basic standards are not set.

The same phenomenon can happen in any department*, letting the organization dependant upon very few people with the alleged** know-how and barely willing to change the situation.

*‘Holes’ and similar behaviors can be found in the lowest layer of the pyramid, either because of the people’s own attitude or because they must carry out orders from rogue managers. Fortunately, in the lowest layer such individuals generally have limited influence.

**Sometimes the know-how is nothing but a myth.

The Swiss cheese pyramid looks like the one with the ‘hole’, but in that case the hole is made by a consistent category of employees, while in this case, the cheese holes are as many individuals.

One big hole or many smaller ones lead to the same effect: the organization is weakened, dependant on few, most of the time not fully company-oriented people.

Compared to the BlessingWhite types of employees, I would say the holes are mostly made by ‘hamsters’ and ‘crash and burners’.

Mending the holes can be complicated, requires a mixture of psychology, training, coaching and if nothing helps, the ultimate replacement.

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You don’t give me answers, you ask me questions

He’s a former colleagues of mine I worked with during 10 years. Let’s call him Jack. He’s about 10 years younger, cocky, went from graduation directly to consulting and as he stated himself one day, “can’t stand being unable to answer a client’s question right away”.

The opposite of me in many aspects and that’s perhaps why we worked well together for so long. The biggest differences between us are that I have no problem to admit I don’t know and I manage silence rather well.

What long flattered and puzzled me about Jack was his repeated “compliment”: You don’t give me answers, you ask me questions.

Well, this is what managers are supposed to do: help their staff to find answers and solutions. Even a manager is not supposed to have answers to all questions, but he should at last know how to tackle problems.

The questions I asked Jack were for both of us. They were a way to structure my own thinking about the issue as I didn’t have the answer myself. The questions were the logical loud spoken path to put pieces together, check the assumptions, simplify the problem and try to craft a possible solution or at least a satisfactory answer.

Asking questions was an invitation for Jack or others to join the exercise and connect our brainpower together. I could make believe I knew the answers but played it old wise man leading his mentee to find the correct answer by himself as a part of his initiation. But no, asking question is still my quiet and indirect way to say “I don’t know but I am willing to help you find the answer”.

Knowing Jack, it was a wonder he didn’t disregard me for being so openly ignorant, but on the contrary he kept seeking my questions.

Over the years, bits of explanations surfaced. One of them was I was a cool manager not giving direct orders (command and control) but helping his teammates to learn. Something so basic in my opinion it does not deserve any praise.

What Jack never said in such way but appeared to me recently (and still is an assumption) is that asking questions and logically analyzing the problem together, I simply showed him respect.

I did not care about my rank nor image, I gave a hand when asked for, worked with lower ranking associates, admitting I didn’t know. Furthermore, for highly educated and intelligent people it was a sign of respect not to throw them any answer but encourage them to analyze, try and solve by themselves.

Reflecting on my own experience, I’ve seen so many managers who couldn’t stand not to know and gave just any answer and left you on your own with it.

How many would I compliment for their managing skills?

No so common after all.


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The catalyst

I like this word “catalyst” when talking about “a person whose talk, enthusiasm, or energy causes others to be more friendly, enthusiastic, or energetic”.

We don’t use it currently in French even so the meaning is the same, we’ll talk about “moderator”, “facilitator” or “coach” instead.

Yet “catalyst” is much more how I felt recently with a small group of participants in a workshop. It was expected by my client to be a kind of kaizen event with a clear goal and limited time: in three days design the layout of a future streamlined assembly line.

It took me the first morning to get basic knowledge about current operations, difficulties and stakes of a company and a business I was discovering.

Being the alien, I asked many questions the insiders kindly answered. Those questions had a double benefit:

  1. give me the minimum necessary insight
  2. force the ops guys working with me to reflect about my questions

When we returned to the nearby office, I organized my new “knowledge” on several sheet of paper in order to summarize, memorize and understand as well as let the participants check my understanding.

During the shopfloor tour and my summing up, some of them had questions and surprises, which found their place on a paper sheet as well.

During the two and half days left, I asked many more questions, made some suggestions and did what I am good at (say my colleagues): sort out and arrange all the popping ideas and scattered data and facts to get a simple and clear understanding of the situation.

Doing so, the participants found most of the time themselves what to do next and how to do it. From time to time, some direction in form of question or suggestion from my side restarted again the stuck team.

In the evening of day two, the line was not only designed, it was 60% installed thanks to all spare furniture and equipment we scavenged. Two weeks later the first assemblies went out of the new line.

This result was unexpected according to the CEO and the group participants, as turning ideas into actions always was difficult in this company.

This was achieved by the subject matter experts themselves, I was “only” their catalyst which helped to unleash and focus their potential talents.

A role that fits me.

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Tales from the Pyramid – Head first

Imagine a bold general in front of his troops, commanding the assault against the enemy.
Spurring his horse to assault he dashed.
His troops didn’t move.

It’s more or less how some top executives must feel, when confident about the tactical moves and their overall strategy, they order the decisive manoeuvre but the bulk of the forces does not follow.

In organizations and companies, giving orders and dictating rules and procedures doesn’t guarantee they will be carried out, applied and followed.

Employees nowadays are less obedient than the previous generations were. Today employees want to be associates in every meaning of the word, not only pawns on the big chessboard.

Management turned employees into intrapreneurs, rewarded individual performance, turned many of them into bounty hunters and mercenaries.
The latter go to battle heartily when success is easy and reward alluring, but may stay put or even run away otherwise.

Other internal forces may play against the big plan, like labor unions for example or some influential managers not sharing the chiefs’ beliefs.

Another factor for the mass to move or not is the speed the instructions, explanations or invitation cascade down the pyramid. The larger the organization, the slower usually the diffusion and the greater the risk of distortion as the messages are passed along.

Or it looks like another flavor-of-the-month idea/program/project. Disillusioned staff just waits for the next big idea and goes on like usual, unimpressed by the top fuss.

There are many reasons the mass will not move on, top managers like generals better check about all possible hindrances before throwing themselves head first into the big fight.

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When Lean increase costs

It happens once in a while, top management is disappointed by Lean assessment results.

Assumptions and expectations

Almost all testimonies about Lean initiatives report savings and gains, which is both a blessing and a curse for Lean.

On one hand, savings and improvements fueled Lean’s fame and attractiveness in the eyes of top managers and decision makers, on the other hand Lean became synonym of cost cutting which is reductive and misleading, more a curse than a blessing when going shop floor.

>Lisez-moi en français

Many decision makers thus launched Lean initiatives in order to reduce costs, savings in their understanding is more about cost cutting then turning wasted resources into value-creating ones.

You may also like Six differences that distinguish cost cuttings from cost reductions

Their expectations were to reap the 20 to 30% savings a Lean program usually yields.

Opposite outcome

It happens once in a while, top management is disappointed by Lean assessment results.

Instead of listing all the possible savings, me and my team would strongly advise to increase spending in order to return some critical resources to their nominal state.

This means fix safety issues or retrofit machines too long deprived of proper maintenance for example.

I witnessed several times new plant managers or general managers ordering a Lean / performance assessment and discovering through our findings that the previous manager in charge cut costs for maintenance in a way critical resources are nearly worn out and/or dangerous for workers.

These short-term savings endangered future production and competitiveness, lead to productivity drops (machines stoppages, breakdowns, longer repairs, slower production rate, higher scrap, etc.) and discouraged users as well as maintenance teams.

Worse, in some cases, the pressure to achieve production objectives lead to endanger workers because of makeshift repairs, poor or no problem solving, etc.

The same can happen to manual work, the extended resource being people. Luckily this is far less frequent, for what I saw.

In order to secure operations and continuity of business, the recommendation is to mend and fix, retrofit and sometimes replace costly parts, return to preventive maintenance with adequate frequency and content, and so on.

This means temporarily spend more, which was not the initial intent.

For the manager who ordered the Lean assessment, it looks like Lean increase costs.

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Tales from the pyramid – the ivory tower

In some organization, top management is cut from its base, managing from remote offices and linked to operations and organization’s real life through reports, dashboards and KPIs.

I’ve met some of those managers brilliantly talking the talk but seldom, if ever, walking it. If they would – this is what they did with me – they would understand that:

  • Their talk is wishful thinking
  • Procedures and instructions are not always applied/carried out and if they are, maybe not in expected way
  • Opportunities for deviations are as numerous as opportunities for improvement
  • People on shop floor resent a boss not showing up from time to time

Keeping secluded in their ivory tower, these managers don’t know what is really going on in the lower levels.

There, people try to overcome their difficulties with available means. They are usually positive-minded and seeking solutions to issues. Yet their options are sometimes dangerous, devious, threatening quality or customer satisfaction, costly or not in line with objectives.

Nevertheless, the management is confident in the talk and convinced that instructions given through a chain of command will reach the lower levels and be applied immediately and thoroughly.

This is, if there is no hole in the pyramid!

Rules are also set by procedures and work instructions, passed by the same chain of command or by e-mail. There is a strong belief that lower levels personnels will read (!) and act accordingly.

The best proof the loop is left open is when you spot obsolete instructions on yellow-old paper forms, forgotten on some information panel nobody ever go see.

Middle managers and team leaders probably dutifully pass the instructions, but as no one cares if they are turned into actions, the loop remains open.

Besides, none of what comes down include alternatives in case of problems, as problems are not supposed to occur.

I remember a seasoned foreman complaining about the issues with final assembly he had to cope with because the engineer in charge of the design would not come downstairs to check his design and help the assembly team.

The foreman was not welcome upstairs either.

In order to improve things, a young rookie engineer was hired to serve as liaison officer. He went up and down the stairs and waited impatiently to have enough seniority to be delivered from the chore…

This is how things can go wrong, when lower levels are forced to decide and act by themselves, with the limited information and understanding they have.

Living in a kind of perfect world, the cut-off manager often faces shameful reality when touring the shop floor with somebody able to spot it at once. It happened numerous times during my plant tours.

I also witnessed workers cynically joking about the manager they very seldom see. One wished his boss touring me around a great new year. It was end of march and a perfect occasion for the worker to show his discontent in a mischievous but somewhat effective way…

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Tales from the Pyramid – the hole in the pyramid

No senior manager ever denied his/her organization does not suffer a hole in the pyramid. I coined this expression (originally in French) after seeing it in all companies I visited as a consultant.

Pyramid with a hole

The hole in the pyramid is a management vacuum left by middle managers who do not (fully) take over their management role. Most often those managers:

  • are former lower level employees promoted to management, e.g. best worker promoted team leader, foreman or even production manager, or technical expert
  • promoted to manager, e.g. R&D or production engineer promoted to department manager, etc.
  • didn’t get any training or coaching about management, had to self-teach mostly by trial-and-error
  • are proud of their promotion and happy about compensation and benefits
  • are awkward and uneasy about management and leave it (to others) whenever possible
  • hide in paperwork, reports, and Excel sheets, behind computer screens in remote offices
  • are source of resentment from both their boss and subordinates.

Their boss cannot rely on them and often have to substitute themselves for them. The subordinates and often former same-level colleagues will not get fair treatment or decisions nor support in execution.

>Lisez-moi en français

The promoted manager inclines either to take the hard way to wipeout former friendship, the soft way trying to please everyone or no way at all, trying to push (unpleasant) decisions up to his/her boss.

Lego_022aSome of them cannot switch to management and incline to return to operational tasks whenever possible instead. This is common among maintenance staff.

Others go an opposite way and refuse any task not compatible with their new status. Working all day behind a computer screen is a symbol of the busy manager, so no way to spend time on shopfloor or take care about the team. Of course this is a personal and convenient interpretation of management’s status.

The problem top management suffers from is the fact the hole in the pyramid is virtual: positions are manned but job isn’t done.

Top managers most often have to step-in, substitute themselves for lower position. Doing so distracts valuable and limited time for tasks which are not theirs and lack time to fulfill the tasks they’re paid for. I use to say they get pulled down.

Victims and guilty

To my surprise, every time I describe a situation in such terms to managers, they heartily agree, all too happy to find an empathetic consultant understanding their daily suffering.

Well, only until they hear the rest of my discourse.

The top managers are, in my point of view, victims and guilty. Their guilt is not to coach and develop their subordinates in a way they get empowered and able to take over their job, including the unpleasant tasks.

Sometimes this is a source of power: letting others be dependant on the boss makes him/her indispensable. In the long term though, this can cost the boss the next promotion as he/she is indispensable where he/she currently is.

Sometimes it is simply the weakness not to take time to coach, pretending to do it faster or better instead. I know, I behave in such manner myself sometimes in the past. I must confess that letting subordinates pull you down can be pleasant: easier tasks give a rest from boring, challenging or delicate higher level tasks.

But this is not what is awaited from high ranking managers.

Mending the hole

What to do with the hole? The answer of course depends on the specific situation, but giving a chance to the person holding the position is a good start:

  • having a face to face discussion about the requirements, the mutual expectations, the gap and how to close the gap
  • give the manager coaching, training if necessary
  • set objectives the SMART way and monitor results
  • discuss the results and seek consensus about the next step
  • if no consensus in sight, the boss is the boss

Sometimes efforts are useless, it is the wrong person for the job.

I remember several cases in which the head of department was the wrong person and obviously suffering from the situation. The proposal to return the person in his/her expertise, excellence or comfort zone, usually the previous position was welcome and the story ended reasonably well.
In some other cases there was no other option than sacking.

The hole has to be mended with new recruitment.

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