Consult with Humility

A friend and colleague remarked to me recently “You know the Lean market has become mature,” implying a depth and breadth of Lean understanding in industry that I have rarely seen myself.

Standardized work, for example, almost always looks like time setting to me, an occasional and cursory exercise by industrial engineers to shave seconds from a static work sequence in order reduce apparent labor costs.   Workers are not even asked to participate.   And in those instances where a standard work chart is actually posted, it’s rarely up to date, usually the one-time effort of a long past kaizen event.  One manager challenged me recently, “Our workers don’t need that, they know their jobs very well,” a comment that exposed his misunderstanding of the concept on several levels.   When we then watched the work and compared it to the standardized work chart posted next to the worker, it became apparent pretty quickly that there was an extra person in process, that standard work in process was ignored and that Takt time represented a minimum value.  “The chart is really not for the workers,” I replied, “it’s for you!   Do you see why?  Can you see what’s happening?”  So, the technique that Taiichi Ohno declared to be the foundation for continuous improvement is too often just another piece of Lean visual pollution.   This unfortunately is the floor condition I observe at many sites:  Not mature, not even immature.  More like forty years of standing still, parroting tools without understanding either the details or the big picture.  Doing the same thing over and over, as they say, and expecting different results.


On the other hand, we consultants seem to be getting smarter and smarter all the time.   We’ve become experts, Senseis, masters, mentors, coaches, and even gurus and rock stars.  We have belts of many colors and framed certificates to show for it.  I wrote a post last year about us pundits, describing an experience I had with consultant braggadocio twenty-five years ago.  Just since last year, however, the proliferation of boastful claims made by us pundits seems to have SATURATED the Internet, most of it Lean Spam.  Some days I think there are more pundits than practitioners.  And while I’m a tad skeptical about the real TPS experience of many website claims, this Lean market has no doubt matured from a selling standpoint.

Thanks to the web, selling Lean has become a battle of keywords and search engine optimization (a topic for a later blog post.)  It’s important to be a web celebrity in this new marketing game, but that does not necessarily imply excellence.  I admit, I’m playing the game; this blog is an example.  Without social media it would be not possible to reach our customers.  But full disclosure: Customers tell me “You’re famous, you’re the Toast Guy.”  I respond, “No, the video may be famous, but not me.  I’m a student of TPS. ”   Along the way, I try to co-learn with my customers and associates.  Continuous improvement and continuous learning after all are two sides of the same coin.  But “Lean Guru?”    Let’s get real.  There might be a few of those around, but for most us it’s just a sales pitch, a key word to drive traffic to our websites.

With all of the marketing hype and ever more superlative descriptions of consulting experience and talent, my question is why are so few organizations continuously improving?    Why for example do so few managers even understand the how-to or why of Standardized Work?   “Where’s the beef?” 

One customer confided in me recently that after three lackluster years of lean implementation working with a well-known consulting firm, he asked the question, “Why after the initial wave of improvement are we not able to sustain the gains?”   The lead consultant replied,  “Because your employees are not as talented as our consultants.”   Whether this arrogance is just marketing hype or whether we actually believe it, if Lean consultants are providing value only to themselves and not to their customers, that is the ultimate hypocrisy.

Right after I became a consultant seventeen years ago, a valued teacher and long-time TPS practitioner from Toyota agreed to discuss my decision with me.  He is one of only a few persons I have met in the last thirty years who might be worthy of the claims of consulting excellence that appear daily on the web, although he would not use those words himself.  “Mr. O,” I confided,  “I love continuous improvement and problem solving, but many times I have trouble understanding a problem and cannot see the solution.”  Mr. O smiled, and shook his head and to my amazement replied, “Yes I know exactly what you mean.  I have that problem too.”    That was all he needed to say.   Teach what you know, but don’t pretend to teach what you don’t.  Always be a student.

The answer to the "Where’s the beef?" question I think is ‘consult with humility.’  If you are a consultant, internal or external, can you be vulnerable or must you pretend always to be the Guru? Share a story.


PS I'm presenting a 45-minute webinar on July 19th - "Coping with the Summer Doldrums: How to Use Vacation-time to Advance Your Lean Transformation". Hope you can tune in.

PPS GBMP's Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference agenda is locked and loaded. The complete schedule, along with session abstracts, is available on the conference website - and I think it's the best agenda we've ever had. More than 60% of the sessions are interactive - forget about face-forward presentations and endless PPT slides. Participate in activities and discussions, learn new things and grow your Lean support network. And now is a great time to get your team registered to ensure your spots for the October event. I sincerely hope to see you there.

This entry was posted in old lean dude on July 11 , 2016.