Some years back I enjoyed a position at a manufacturing firm with a long history of success in applying Lean. My assignment was to improve throughput and quality in a specialized fabrication area, where pretty much every unit produced was a custom job. There was a lot of variation just in the product mix: the smallest unit could fit in one’s lap, while the largest sat on a fixture the size of a small car. Across the size ranges there was additional variation in the complexity of the units produced. As a result, a given unit could take anywhere from one hour to several days before it was ready for the next stage of production.

Some of the raw materials were prepared using automated equipment, but inevitably the work entailed people manually assembling everything. It was most educational, and rather intriguing, seeing low-technology fabrication techniques, combined with occasionally exquisite craftsmanship, turning out some seriously high-tech “stuff.”

Looking at Variation

It took virtually no time to confirm the obvious: a value stream map (VSM) was called for. However, given the wide range of processing times involved – time being, of course, the unifying and dominant measure throughout Lean – a one-time snapshot of the process couldn’t possibly provide the needed insight for cycle times, queues, etc. An accurate representation needed to include Six Sigma’s concept of variation on top of the Lean tools (subsequent data verified this assumption). My supervisor and peers supported me as I went about analyzing variation, even though doing so was a departure from their modus operandi.

Between my determination to understand the variation and my confessed status as an ultimate “Gemba nerd,” I spent many hours on the shop floor: measuring dimensions and distances, timing various tasks, counting units in queue at various times and locations, and listening to those who could and would talk to me. This included visiting the floor during the “off” shifts, because – at the risk of preaching to the Captain Obvious choir – those shifts can seem like entirely different worlds compared to first shift.

Unexpected Findings

Those off-shift walks led to the discovery of two utterly unexpected cultural phenomena given the company’s reputation as a Lean powerhouse.

  1. The off-shift employees were unaccustomed to seeing an exempt (not subject to minimum wage laws or overtime regulations) associate in their midst, unless that visitor was imparting some manner of grief. It took a while before my arrival stopped eliciting eye rolls and nervous glances. I would have expected Gemba walks to be a regular occurrence, at all times and all locations, with the attendant give and take of improvement ideas.
  2. Associates were surprised when they found me not just paying attention to their input, but acting on them where feasible – and sharing credit for their ideas. I became the go-to guy when any floor associate had input. It was flattering though sometimes distracting, given that I was made aware of many legitimate concerns far outside my purview. Again, a true Gemba culture would have made my “unusual” behaviors an inherent aspect of daily work life.

“We Were 5S-ed”

About halfway through the project, though, I received a shock that dwarfed both of those non-trivial inconsistencies.

It started as I was chatting with an operator pal. I think we were discussing some profound topic like a recent football game, when she excused herself and walked over to a supply cabinet.

She returned carrying a consumable item that I knew had been available to dispense directly from her workstation the day before. Why, I asked, was a new form of transport waste introduced abruptly?

I’ll never forget her choice of words.

“We were 5S-ed.”

I stood there, slack jawed, for easily 30 seconds, stunned by the implication.

The power of 5S comes from people endlessly finding ways to make their own work environments more productive, efficient and safe. But the operator’s visit to a supply cabinet was not remotely the result of the work force making their own decisions.

“We were 5S-ed.” It had been done to them, not by them.

The notion that some external committee swooped through and imposed their uninformed will upon the work force – and that in doing so they had increased transport waste, delivering the opposite outcome from what 5S seeks – was mind numbing.

The choice of words – “We were 5S-ed” – felt like some form of personal violation, and in some ways that was exactly the case. Clearly, somebody had confiscated decision-making authority from the folks who should have done the deciding, and the outcome had not been good.

What Went Wrong?

How did this happen in an organization with a strong track record delivering on the promises of Lean?

One bit of insight arises from a conference call I attended. Our site’s Lean practitioners were gathered in our conference room, and on the call were conference rooms full of Lean practitioners from perhaps 10 other sites nationwide. I recall representatives from one location asking elementary questions about Lean practice. Legitimate questions to be sure, but only when coming from students newly learning the ropes of Lean. For this team to be posing those questions felt akin to an alleged ace pilot peering into an airplane cockpit and asking, “What does that steering wheel looking thingy do?”

It must have been possible to gain a leadership position in Lean without truly having the chops for the task. Despite my site’s having a cadre of highly qualified Lean practitioners, some of their reporting structure must have included folks without adequate skills for those leadership responsibilities.

I further hypothesize that those less qualified managers had rolled out some manner of incentive-driven metrics to “prove” they were “doing” Lean, without comprehending the implications. Somebody likely was expected to “do” 5S, and “doing” 5S likely was interpreted to mean workstations becoming Leaner in the most easily countable way: reducing the number of items kept there.

Everywhere we go, we see the ramifications of badly thought-out metrics, driving behaviors that make things worse. In my experience, bad metrics have two universal root causes:

  1. Inadequate respect for the people doing the work – both in terms of workers’ ability to contribute to the development of metrics, and those same workers’ ingenuity at delivering numbers with or without the underlying outcomes the numbers had sought to improve
  2. Insufficient appreciation for the team effort and facilitator skills required to roll out metrics that stand a chance of being robust

These two causes wrap around one another like a caduceus. Unfortunately, the only thing more dangerous than a leader who doesn’t understand something is the leader refusing to acquire needed understanding.

Get It Right

David Pink’s book Drive shares solid research into the three elements of intrinsic motivation:

  1. Mastery
  2. Autonomy
  3. Purpose

In this context it makes sense that the task of developing measurements must involve those whose performance is being measured: the person who knows the most about digging the ditch is the one holding the shovel. That comes with its own corollary: the top expert, therefore, is not the executive vice president of ditch digging.

If your leadership is willing to heed your advice about how to avoid “being 5S-ed,” follow these recommendations:

  • Trust and respect the people at the bottom of the food chain. Given the chance, they can, and will, deliver superlative levels of passionate commitment and performance excellence. All the leaders need to do is listen to them and eliminate the obstacles management has created. (See the next bullet for specifics.)
  • In order to listen most effectively, leaders need to go to Gemba.
    • They should be trained in how to conduct a proper Gemba visit, preferably using a blend of classroom introduction and shop floor immersion.
    • They should go to Gemba at all times of day, into all corners of the operation.
    • Ideas should be acted on promptly; it’s crucial that lists of suggestions not become graveyards of ideas.
    • Make sure the people coming up with the ideas get full credit for their contributions. If folks perceive that their ideas are being stolen, the next round of ideas will not see daylight.
  • If one wants to track improvements, return to the first recommendation: trust the people being measured.
    • Get them to buy into why the tracking is important.
    • Formally and officially involve them – or at least some of them depending on the size of the work force – in figuring out how the tracking might be done.
    • Layer in enough time and expert facilitation so that the resulting metrics are both robust and palatable to those folks.
    • Enlist their commitment to garner acceptance and support from their peers.
  • Recognize that not every idea will pan out.
    • Don’t punish people for their mistakes but support them for trying.
    • Use every single change as an opportunity to learn. Ask what worked, what didn’t, why and what might be done better in the next try. This applies no matter how much or little success resulted from an idea – debrief the home runs as much as the strikeouts.

If these recommendation sound like universal admonitions, you’re right. The things that make Lean successful are the things that have always worked. It’s not whether you use the tools associated with Lean, Six Sigma or Agile, or any of the alphabet soup of improvement initiatives like SPC, K-T, 8D, TQM, PDCA, etc. It’s the underlying approach to working with the people that differentiates whether an organization leaps forward or grinds along.

About the Author