‘Where Are the Big Wins?’ How I Got Fired as a Lean Consultant

‘Where Are the Big Wins?’ How I Got Fired as a Lean Consultant
By Rick Bohan

Just the other day, I (Rick) got fired six months into a lean consulting initiative that was to have lasted two years. During those six months, I (along with a number of energetic operators and engineers) started several relevant projects.

  1. Workplace organization and visual factory throughout the plant
  2. Development of run sheets and changeover checklists
  3. Reduction of unplanned downtime
  4. Organization of the Work in Progress staging area to facilitate “first in, first out” pull scheduling.

You might think that this was an aggressive schedule, or you might think that it was a light schedule … but it’s not nothing, right?

So, what went wrong?

It seems the client wasn’t happy that there weren’t any “big wins,” as the general manager put it, during those first six months.

I’m not happy that I got fired nor will I be sending that general manager a birthday card next year, but, if I’m honest, I have to admit it’s not altogether his fault that he is mistaken about what lean can do for him and his operation.

The desire for those “big wins” is shared by far too many American manufacturers, largely because they’ve been misinformed as to what lean is. They’ve been told that the simple application of a few lean tools (Kanban? Kaizen? Kata? Something else with a strange name?) will provide substantial cost savings and productivity improvements in just a few months.  All that’s needed is a consultant who will hold a class or two for employees, and their problems will go away.

I once was invited to discuss workplace organization with a prospective client. They were unhappy with the outcomes of their efforts to implement 5S, which consisted of a two-hour class for supervisors. After the classes had been conducted, nothing happened.

The client wasn’t interested in hearing that a successful 5S initiative required significant and challenging culture change. He simply wanted another class for the supervisors. When I told him that wouldn’t work, he adjourned the meeting. (In retrospect, I guess that was a case of getting fired before I got hired!)

The “big win” lean message can be seductive. To managers, it promises gains in productivity and profits without much effort. To some practitioners, it offers the chance to get clients. These practitioners are happy to design their “lean message” to persuade leaders that the benefits of lean come easily through the application of a few tools.

We see this in how managers and practitioners talk about “leadership commitment” to lean practices. We’re told that if managers can be persuaded that lean meets their operating problems, they will get engaged in lean efforts. The emphasis of “lean messaging” gets placed on “here’s what it will do for you” ahead of “here’s what you need to do to make lean effective”.

I recently read a LinkedIn post that asked, “Is it possible to tweak your continuous improvement strategy to diminish the bad effects of management apathy?” One commenter answered, “In my opinion, need-based continuous improvement (CI) may draw more management support than what culture-based CI gets. A CI effort in response to a real need for improvement is more likely to be successful.”

And there you have it. Promise the “big wins,” and you can persuade even apathetic managers to actively support a lean initiative.

A few months back, I was invited to take part in a discussion of lean messaging with several other lean practitioners. (The organization that invited us is seeking to develop an approach to marketing lean consulting to small manufacturers.) We practitioners agreed that present lean messaging focused too narrowly on “big wins” and not enough on the challenges of the culture change needed. It turned out that this wasn’t what the organizers of the discussion wanted to hear. Our discussion leaders were eager for a message that would pull in the managers who only wanted “big wins,” preferably at a low cost. They didn’t want to hear that the “big wins” came only after years of challenging culture change.

As if the misdirected wish for those “big wins’ wasn’t enough, one can’t even be sure just what qualifies as such in some managers’ minds. A number of years ago, Ron was hired as a lean consultant for a candy manufacturer. Ron designed and administered training for 400 employees. During these sessions, he learned of a variety of improvement opportunities from the participants, many of which they pursued. Their first project improved first-pass yields significantly. Other projects led to annual savings of around $1 million for the plant.

For his troubles, Ron, like me, was fired. It seems the “big wins” weren’t in the right arena. Ron was fired because he guessed wrong as to what his boss considered to be “big wins.” The boss had heard that lean was all about fixing whatever problem he might be interested in at the moment; that it was all about meeting his needs, whatever those might be. When Ron fixed things that were badly broken, it turned out to be not enough.

Lean concepts and methods are robust in their ability to improve operating performance on a variety of fronts, but they aren’t panaceas for “whatever ails you.” Further, any successful lean initiative requires a good deal of persistence and patience because success requires a significant change in the culture of the organization. Culture change means everyone changes their own behaviors in ways that help each other and help the enterprise. As such, culture change starts at the top of the organization.

Sadly, too many senior leaders want the “big wins” without having to carry out the work of reflecting on their own behaviors and how those behaviors might be holding their organizations back. They seem to hope that everything around them will change for the better without any investment on their own part.

A number of years ago, I persuaded a plant manager, Chris, that the installation of a shadow board for changeover tools might be beneficial in a number of ways. On a return visit, Chris showed me the shadow board that he had installed. It was empty. “Your shadow board idea didn’t work very well,” he reported. I replied, “Chris, did you think the shadow board was going to walk around the plant and pick up the tools for you? You have to come out of your office and look at the board. If the tools are there, you grab your supervisor and say, ‘Good job … just what I wanted to see!’ If the tools aren’t there, you grab your supervisor and ask him where your tools are. That’s how all this works, Chris.” I obviously hadn’t adequately conveyed to Chris, during my earlier visit, that shadow boards didn’t work without a change in the plant’s culture, and that it started with him.

To Chris’ credit, he took my admonition to heart and the shadow board eventually “worked.” He was willing to change his own approach to leadership. He modified his behaviors in ways that showed his commitment to real change in his plant. He understood that “big wins” didn’t magically appear, no matter what he might have heard or read. He was smart enough to know that no improvements would be realized without substantial involvement and persistence on his part. He clearly understood, as my recent client did not, that “big wins” only came after “big changes” in communication, teamwork, decision-making, problem solving and innovation. Chris was wise enough to listen to the message that slow but sure culture change leads to the eventual big wins.

Let’s hope that more managers are like Chris in the coming years. As Albert Einstein said, “The measure of true intelligence is the ability to change.” Isn’t that what true leadership is about when it comes to lean deployment?