Recently, I contributed to a Linkedin discussion with two main questions: 1) should Lean (working) be renamed and 2) is it mainly a management approach? My answers are: no and no. Lean is ‘just’ Lean, and it is not a management approach mainly. That said, it is important that the management enables and supports the operation in Lean working. After all, they are the decision makers. But to claim that Lean is for management only (and the operation should just follow the new strategy) would degrade the philosophy to just another management approach, a project where nobody knows what happens when the project has ended.
As most company strategies seep only very slowly in the operational levels of the organizations, employees know at best the goal their department is aiming for and at worst they don’t know anything, but are just following orders. This is a waste of time, and waste is one of the worst enemies of a Lean approach. Still, top managers are rarely found ‘ on the floor’, to get a thorough understanding of what actually happens.
Considering this, I thought about why the tools get so much attention. Kaizen-events, Gemba walks, Kanban cards… there are lots of articles to be found on the web. I think it is because these are relatively quick solutions for quick wins. But the usage of tools doesn’t make the way of working Lean. You just use the tools. Take for example ‘takt time’: the available production time divided by customer demand. As managers are trained to focus on figures and reports, it is highly attractive to pay a lot of attention. Subtract the time your employees need for the lunch break, and you know what the production rate of each employee should be, the 100% performance. Nice and easy.
However, focusing on this 100% performance only doesn’t do justice to Mr. Taiichi Ohno’s statement that not only Muda is to be removed, also Mura (unevenness) and Muri (overburden) should be battled, especially since he considered Muri one of the root causes of waste. Moreover, the operation ‘suffers’ more from Muri and Mura, while they not only see it happen, it happens to them. They way they cope with it, is part of what makes them experts in their own field of work.
Unfortunately, fighting all three M’s takes time and effort to incorporate the philosophy throughout the organization. When the management doesn’t recognize this, only symptoms are tackled, not the underlying reason.
Lean working can be very frightening, from a management perspective: you enable and empower your employees to improve their work as they think it should be. This also means that they are empowered to make decisions to some degree on their own. In management reality, where ‘command and control’ is still widely spread, measuring is considered core business.
So what if you or employees decide that no reports are generated which are not read anyway? You know that they are right in deciding so, but you will miss one of your reports. Can you handle that? And what about visual controls? For whom are these controls meant in the first place? For you and your fellow managers, or for your employees, who can see quickly what the status of the production line is? Will there be time to read what the visual controls say, or is a quick glance the only possibility (e.g.: is time to read the visual controls integrated in the measured takt time)?
Your operational employees are your professional experts. As you may be aware of, job hopping is less common on operational level as it is on tactic and strategic levels meaning that there is valuable knowledge to be found on the work floor. To unearth this treasure, you just have to stop being a manager and start being a leader.