Lean Implementation Solutions

Peter Kropf, Gembutsu Consulting

After achieving success as part of a company's lean transformation, it is not uncommon for a senior manager to decide to join another organization with the goal of making dramatic operational improvements through the deployment of lean principles.

In a typical scenario, this manager jumps into the new role with much initial energy and optimism. However, in some cases, success often is not as forthcoming as initially expected. Operating results are not being realized, improvement ideas are not being sustained, and the workforce is slow to embrace a kaizen mindset.

Knowing that the root cause of the problem is deeper than employees simply not understanding lean jargon or a bunch of Americanized Japanese words, the manager typically seeks a course correction to get the lean program back on track.

This article explores three common scenarios that are often encountered during the first year of a lean deployment, along with advice for how each can be corrected or avoided altogether.

Challenges with Employee Empowerment

A key philosophy of lean manufacturing is to shift decision-making away from top management and closer to the customer. In practice, this means moving it down the organizational chart as close to the manufacturing process as possible.

Knowing this, a new senior manager may embrace the thinking only to discover that those to whom decisions are being delegated are simply not yet ready to make them. After all, it takes time for all levels of an organization to become comfortable making decisions that were previously the responsibility of their superiors. Individuals must learn to trust that decisions they make will not be second-guessed or reversed by someone higher up.

Given this situation, the new manager will have no choice but to take on the additional decision-making workload all while coaching his or her team how to become empowered. Both of these tasks will slow lean implementation progress.

To develop a more empowered workforce, it is important that the new manager repeatedly communicate the fact that delegating decisions down the organizational chart has become an expectation. It is not enough to mention this once or twice at a staff meeting or perhaps via email. Instead, like all change-management communication, the message must be repeated frequently and consistently.

Furthermore, if someone makes a decision that in hindsight should have been made differently, it is critical to not reprimand the individual but use the event as a learning opportunity for all. After employees repeatedly hear about empowerment and see that their decisions will be honored by superiors, they will be much more eager to make them.

Other Functional Groups

Another difficulty that a new senior manager may not expect is the level of reliance on other functional groups. This is something that may have been taken for granted in the old job. Initially, lean improvements will take place on the shop floor with little change being asked of departments outside the plant management group. Over time, as kaizen ideas expand, their implementation will require cooperation from other functional groups.

For example, as part of a lean initiative, an automotive supplier decided to move away from an assembly-line-based system toward a cellular layout. In the old system, employees performed a single job at a single workstation. Even though products were built on an assembly line, which in theory would be a single-piece flow system, in practice inventory piled up between operations.

One reason for this unevenness in flow was due to the fact that the corporate culture accepted operator tardiness after breaks. While this waste of lost time was not noticeable in the old system, in the new cellular layout, production could not happen smoothly unless all employees were present. This situation inevitably caused complaints among some employees, who had grown to accept as a de-facto standard that a few minutes here or there did not matter.

Human resources was consulted for guidance. During the discussion, it was discovered that although an attendance policy existed on paper, it had not been enforced for years. The challenge was reinstating the policy without demoralizing the workforce. Eventually, the situation was rectified, but without human resources on board, the shop floor would have struggled to implement the new cell layout.

Another example of cross-functional buy-in involved efforts to reduce downtime at a company supplying the aerospace industry. In this instance, the daily tracking of data on various glasswalls revealed that a significant amount of downtime was occurring in the early morning hours.

The root cause of this was a production-line shift start time of 5 a.m., while most engineers arrived to work between 7 and 8 a.m. The result was that if equipment went down for even a minor stoppage in the first 2 hours of the shift, the situation would not be investigated until 7 a.m. at the earliest.

Faced with this problem that lean "created," the heads of manufacturing and engineering met to discuss possible solutions. The outcome was the implementation of a six-week rotation schedule in which a handful of engineers came to work at 5 a.m. Uptime improved, and engineers learned to live with an earlier start time. However, without the involvement of the director of engineering, the shop floor would have struggled to achieve success.

These are just two examples that show the importance of the reliance on other functional areas when deploying lean. This cross-functional involvement typically does not happen on its own, as everyone is busy focusing on their job. Instead, it will require the deliberate actions and forethought of all senior managers.

One method a new manager can use to achieve cross-functional buy-in is to invite department heads to kaizen workshop report-outs. This will give everyone a sense of the changes that are occurring, thereby preparing them for the moment when the change will rely on their team for support.

Another helpful technique is to invite department heads to gemba walks in which metrics are reviewed. These weekly meetings cover the pertinent quality, cost, delivery, safety and morale (QCDSM) metrics for each cell. This activity not only will get these individuals physically on the shop floor, which is never a bad thing, but by focusing on shop-floor driven metrics, they will understand what data is being tracked, what challenges may lie ahead and how they can help. 

Past Experience

Finally, a third common reason a new manager may struggle to find lean implementation success with a new employer has less to do with the new company itself and more with the manager's skill set.

A lean professional's ability to transform a traditional manufacturer into one that embraces the kaizen philosophy is greatly correlated with whether that person was part of a company's lean transformation from the ground up as opposed to joining an already well-working production system. The more involved an individual was with creating the building blocks that produced a lean culture, the more apt he or she will be in implementing lean at another company.

Of course, learning how to implement lean from the ground up is not impossible. After all, U.S. managers had to learn this from the Japanese. However, it will require extra effort and focus on behalf of the new manager.

A most useful tool to overcome this challenge is the creation of a steering committee. Meeting weekly, this group's role is to identify and solve implementation challenges that will inevitably rise. The more these are understood at the leadership level, the more likely it is that solutions will be forthcoming.

A crucial aspect of implementing lean is to anticipate roadblocks before they occur. Once it is understood what a company is up against, steps can be taken to correct the situation. Sometimes this may be as simple as reaching out to colleagues to seek their input. At other times, it might involve difficult internal discussions as new production methods are tested.

One thing is certain: Lean implementation is always a team effort, and when carried out in a deliberate and experienced way, it can be a lot of fun, as an unprecedented level of excitement and productivity is brought to the workplace.

About the Author

Peter Kropf is a managing partner at Gembutsu Consulting (www.gembutsu.com).

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About the Author