An Important Lesson Learned

Posted by on Aug 22, 2021 in Lean | 0 comments

Over the years, I’ve dealt with many organizations that were “interested” in implementing lean. A few were looking for a complete lean transformation. Others wanted to solve particular problems related to reducing change overtimes, improving flow, or eliminating quality issues. Several of these organizations made substantial progress and continue their lean efforts using kaizen and other lean techniques. But some organizations tried lean and determined it wasn’t for them. I heard excuses such as “It takes too much work,” “It’s too radical,” and “We can’t sustain it.”

Let me give you an example of a situation I came across. It involved an organization that hired an operations manager to correct a deteriorating problem. Productivity was extremely low when he arrived. Expenses were through the roof. Production had backed up, and customers were upset because of late deliveries. The assembly operation, which generally ran two, ten-hour shifts four days a week, was now running 24 hours a day for six and sometimes seven days a week. Over time, along with time and a half pay, or double-time pay, was so common-place that most workers no longer were interested in taking more and usually would take unscheduled time off. As you can imagine, the unit was operating in the red.

The new manager saw immediately that the organization lacked discipline, so he moved quickly to establish authority. He issued directives to prevent overtime, and no one could write a purchase order without his approval. He hired new supervisors whose job it was to clamp down and keep a tight rein. He got tough, fired troublemakers, and refused to put up with foolishness.

Soon, the situation was no longer out of control, and within four months, it began to stabilize. The backlog was reduced and cut to a manageable level. Overtime ended, and the workweek got back to 40 hours, where it belonged. Profitability slowly got back into the black.
This manager deserved a pat on the back, and he got it. Given the state of affairs when he arrived, his actions may have been necessary. His actions and techniques were obsolete; nevertheless, he achieved a reasonable degree of success. The owners satisfied that he had righted the ship wanted to take it further and implement lean. They brought me in to help guide the team.

Assessing the situation, I told the owners that the organization needed teamwork and spirit de corps to be fostered and allowed to work. Multiple management layers needed reducing, and decision-making needed to be pushed down to line managers and assembly teams.
What do you think the new operations manager thought about this? By his expression, I could tell he was not happy implementing lean and giving up his authority. Nevertheless, he said he’d do his best. I began working with one of the production line cells, and within a couple of weeks, the line made enormous productivity gains.

It wasn’t long before I heard through the grapevine that the operations manager had directed his supervisors to “play along” with me. He wanted them to pretend to be working toward the lean transformation, but only while I was present. Then it would be back to business as usual.

As you can imagine, I was not happy! But I could understand why he felt the way he did. He had turned a bad situation around in a short period. One of the lines we converted to continuous flow was starting to produce at a remarkable level. We reviewed the results with him, and he stubbornly acknowledged the gain.

Something told me he was a hopeless cause, but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I applauded him for the turnaround. I told him I thought his plant was in a position to become a showcase, but only he could make it happen. He now had a model to follow since one line had been converted. All he needed to do was expand the transformation to the other assembly lines and eventually throughout the organization and every department.

What took place after I left for a month was a great disappointment. In my absence, the steps taken to get to lean were dismantled, and the line we transformed returned to its old way of working. Workers became disheartened, and the plant was still only marginally profitable. Progress toward goals had not been made. The manager was fired, and a new manager was brought in to replace him.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that some managers have a tendency to embrace lean, and others do not. This tendency appears to be part of an individual’s personality. It has nothing to do with age. Usually, you can get an indication of whether or not people possess the tendency by talking to them. People who see themselves as innovators are more likely to be better at implementing lean.  Another trait I’ve noticed is that people who are never satisfied with the status quo continuously look for ways to improve.

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