After a one-day observation at a local company, I participated in a wrap-up meeting with the General Manager and his team. “We’ve been at this for five years,” the general manager said to me, proudly referring to his division’s lean implementation. “Our 5S rating is over 85% and every department spends one hour per week on problem-solving.” He continued on for several more minutes to extol the vibrancy of their transformation, citing numbers of A3’s, kaizen events and Gemba walks. “I visit team huddle boards every month to monitor adherence. And our corporate maturity score is 3.5 out of 4!” Finally, in an attempt at humility he glanced to other managers in the room and concluded, “Of course, there’s always room for improvement. What did you see when you visited our site today?” I took a long pause before answering his question.
I had just finished touring the facility at his request to provide a rough idea of how the site would fare in a Shingo Prize challenge. I had spent a half-day in the factory with the factory manager and several hours in support departments trying to understand the current condition of their improvement process. My observation bore out the appearance of various activities he described, but there seemed to be no outcomes associated with these. Employees were going through the motions, but not creating change. A3’s posted on the factory wall had grown stale. Huddle boards, notable for their abundance, were updated inconsistently.
“Where is the problem-solving?” I asked a supervisor at one of the factory huddle boards. “We get to it when we can, but it’s been pretty busy lately,” she apologized. I continued, “How often do you get a visit from management?” “Once in a while,” she chuckled, “but that’s okay. We have enough problems as it is.” The factory manager standing next to me looked disapprovingly at his supervisor’s quip. He said to me a bit later in the tour “We need to change our culture. They are not on board.”
Who is they? I asked. “The front line,” he responded.
As we continued into the office spaces I commented, “It looks like you have a lot of Lean props, like A3’s and huddle boards and color-coding, but I don’t see much happening.”
That’s why you’re here,” he replied. “We made some big changes – cut costs and reduced lead-times -- at the start of our Lean journey, but we have had difficulty getting employees engaged.”
“What have you done previously to promote Lean?” I asked.
The factory manager responded. “We had consultants swarming the place for a couple years, and spent a small fortune on huddle boards. And we provided Lean training for everyone. Our first wave of improvements seemed to go well, but then we stalled.”
I agreed. “Yes, the process appears to have stagnated. Why are you interested in challenging for the Shingo Prize?”
After a moment, the factory manager replied, “Our GM has an interest.”
• • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Back at the boardroom debrief, I responded to the general manager’s question. “You have a very successful, traditionally managed business”, I began in an attempt to temper my comments, “but I don’t sense an environment that supports improvement and problem-solving.” The president frowned a bit. I continued. “Use of Lean tools like visual boards and problem-solving are inconsistent and not purposeful. From a distance, it looks like something’s happening, but closer inspection suggests that problems are not being addressed and resources for improvement are scarce. Most of the activity is being generated by a few supervisors. “ I continued a bit longer to amplify my observations with specific details from the floor.
As I spoke, I noted that several of the president’s staff glancing to him for a response. I concluded. “Several times today I heard that employees don’t have the right culture. The responsibility for changing that culture resides in this room. My recommendation is that your management team re-evaluate your roles and participation needed to create a culture that’s more favorable to improvement."
After a short deafening silence, a manager responded nervously, addressing the president as much as me. “I don’t agree that our process is broken as Mr. Hamilton suggests. We’ve made a lot of progress.” Other managers nodded in agreement. “Bobble heads,” I thought to myself.
Bolstered by this support, the president addressed me. “Well, everyone is welcome to their opinions. We’d like to thank you for coming in today.” The meeting was over.
Call me a bad salesman, but the emperor had no Lean.