Novel provides powerful insights into lean transformation

Mike Wroblewski, Batesville Casket Company; lean sensei, Batesville Casket Company
Tags: lean manufacturing

I recently finished reading the newly published book from the Lean Enterprise Institute, The Lean Manager, written by Michael Balle and Freddy Balle. The Lean Manager is a business novel about a lean transformation and a sequel to their international bestseller, The Gold Mine.

The format of a business novel has been popular for several years, with some done well and others not so well. In general, I am not especially fond of the novel format due to poor story lines, poor dialogue, extra noise in the story line, and poor pace that drags the story along or slaps together the ending. If done well, I love the novel format.

In the case of The Lean Manager, it is hands down the best business novel on lean transformation that has been written yet, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Michael and Freddy did an outstanding job on all accounts providing a strong story with outstanding dialogue and many, many powerful insights into the lean transformation.

I started highlighting and taking notes of many of the best points which ended up being too numerous to list, but I will share just a couple with you. I will not reveal all the golden nuggets found in the book, so you can explore it on your own.

“People are natural problem-solvers. Once we understand the problem, our mind will follow seamlessly to adopting a solution.”

“When a solution is forced onto us where we do not see a problem, chances are we will fight tooth and nail against it, no matter how clever the new approach.”

“There are very few operational experiments which cannot be reversed quickly, and hence, a bias to action is perfectly reasonable in routine process.”

“Requires radical transformation of managerial behavior.”

1. Problems have to be solved one at a time.
2. Managers need to remain close to people as they conduct experiments.
3. Managers have to be maniacs about check.
4. Drawing the right conclusions from the experiment is often really tough.

“Improve management practices”

“The only way to be more competitive is to improve management practices continually.”

“Managing by problem solving”

“Develop people by kaizen so that they know more.”

The major themes in The Lean Manager include: Kaizen Spirit, Go and See, Teamwork, Mutual Trust, and Clear Direction. Each theme is strongly woven into the story line with added company politics, disappointments and frustrations as the fictional plant manager, Andy Ward, struggles to save his plant from pending closure.

Although The Lean Manager is an excellent book, there are a few points that I did not like. For starters, it uses the crisis of plant closure to create a sense of urgency and drama to the lean transformation. Why does it always take crisis to drive the motivation for a lean transformation?

Second, I absolutely love the character Phil Jenkinson, the CEO in this story. Where are all of the Phil Jenkinsons in this world! I have never met a super-CEO like this that is a master coach, long-term thinker, lean knowledgeable, shop floor comfortable, hands-on leader yet keeps his ego in check and lets his people learn by doing. He is as close to perfect as a CEO can get for a lean transformation. This makes a great story and provides an outstanding example, however this character is far from the norm.

In addition, there was just one mention of using Six Sigma in this story – during a dialogue between Amy Woods (consultant) and Ward, which is less than positive. The story portrays the Six Sigma approach as “one guy working in a corner and looking for brilliant solutions”. In my experience, this is not a true application of Six Sigma. Those few paragraphs could have been eliminated to remove the negative swipe at Six Sigma and the lean transformation message would still remain powerful.

One important point to remember while reading this story is not to turn it into a road map in a lean transformation. It would be easy to pick up many points in the book and turn it into a road map which would not guarantee success. Look at the problems you are facing in your company and determine your own path. Use the story as a discussion platform with other leaders in your company on what it takes in a lean transformation and how are we going to head there.

Despite my few critical points of this story, I highly recommend this book to all of us working on lean transformations. It captures the true essence of a lean transformation in all its accomplishments and struggles, with eloquent emphasis that we cannot force a lean transformation and we cannot do this alone.

Disclaimer: Thanks to my friends at The Lean Enterprise Institute for providing a review copy of The Lean Manager. This book review is my personal opinion and I was not compensated nor obligated to provide one.

About the author:
Mike Wroblewski started his lean journey with instruction in quick die change from Shigeo Shingo. Mike is currently the lean sensei at Batesville Casket Company in Batesville, Ind. He also writes a blog called “Got Boondoggle?” featuring lean and Six Sigma topics. Check it out at