Crossing the Lean Threshold

Lean transformations are increasingly bumping up against a common threshold. We may be very familiar with most of the lean tools. We may also have learnt to see our value streams and how to redesign them, at least within our own organisations, which is a big step forward. But until recently we have had less clarity about what lean management and lean leadership really looks and feels like.

It is therefore not surprising that while management is often keen to encourage lean campaigns to eliminate waste and to create flow, they often balk at the point when it becomes necessary for them to fundamentally change the way they run the business. Once this threshold is reached however employees quickly spot that they are being asked to change the way they work while management continues as before. The inevitable result is that the campaign loses stem, momentum is lost and those determined to do lean begin to jump ship for leaner challenges elsewhere. 

In my experience the only way to really understand how lean managers successfully lead a continuing and deepening transformation is by watching them at work and by getting them to reflect on what they are doing and why. It is not something you can learn from theory or in the abstract, but only from practice. And there are still only a very few places where you can see it. The most obvious example and the unique strength underlying the lean movement is of course Toyota. Another example in the UK is Unipart. 

Fortunately a growing number of senior ex Toyota managers like John Shook, who have also spent some time in traditional organisations, are now beginning to reflect on their experiences. Recent books like Satoshi Hino’s Inside the Mind of Toyota and Pascal Dennis’s Getting the Right Things Done also throw a great deal of light on the subject. Once again we are trying to describe an interlocked set of thoughts, mental models and practices that fit together into a new management system. This is my attempt to begin to summarise them. 

All value is the result of a value stream. Every value stream needs a manager with a future state plan. They need to convince the functions and top management to give them the resources to achieve their plan. Key tools for this are the value stream map and the A3 plan.

The strategic direction of the business needs to be clear and visible to everyone – as the driver for a policy management process to align planning and problem solving activities throughout the organisation. Top management must also take responsibility for reducing overburden and unnecessary variation so that value streams can flow quickly in line with demand.

Brilliant results come from managing today’s process, not from juggling metrics of past performance. Good visual management should enable everyone to very quickly grasp the current progress of every value stream. Management must frequently “go and see” whether the plan is being met and what help is needed to do so, rather than fight fires.

Every value stream, however lean, will be always be subject to changes and interruptions. The problems revealed by these interruptions point to the opportunities for improvement and should be made as visible as possible. Responsibility for tracking the root causes and solving these problems, using the scientific method, should be given to those close to the problem itself.

The most important task of a lean leaders at every level in the organisation is to develop the capabilities of their people, in particular deepening their knowledge of their value streams and the process of solving problems to improve it. The most effective way to do this is by asking the right questions, rather than giving instructions and answers. This however is just the beginning.

All these elements knit together to build an organisation that is continually learning, improving and adapting to changing circumstances. What makes lean so powerful is that it is much more than a set of tools or even a set of principles for redesigning value streams. It is about fundamentally changing the way we manage and work together at every level in the business. The challenge is to learn to act ourselves into this new way of managing.