Lean Toolbox: Who’s “teaching” who?

There are more questions about lean today than when it was officially “Americanized” in the early 1990s. This is a good thing because it indicates some people are thinking about lean rather than blindly following dogma. Some common questions regarding lean are: What tools do we need to use? Who should use the tools? How do we evaluate the use of tools when gauging our progress in transforming to a lean company? Within the professional circles of continuous improvement these questions are often met with two responses: 1) it is NOT about the tools! and 2) it is ALL about the tools!

Lean tools then, tend to take a severe thrashing during stimulating discussion regarding best lean practices. This beating pales in comparison to the mistreatment doled out by the American Manager. If a manager uses the wrong tool its o.k. with me. But if a manager uses the wrong tool thinking he used it correctly and then subsequently assumes this makes him a leader...that is a different problem. This behavior is a sure sign of "faddism." A little SMED here, a little 5S there, sprinkle in a work cell or two.....BAM! You are on the lean journey, man!

(whisper) Well, at least for the next fiscal year and then we'll decide if we should move forward with this Lean thing.

This is where folks down in the trenches misdirect our frustration at the lean tools. We see managers abusing the tools, yet we all know lean is NOT just about the tools! Why don’t managers see that there is a systematic way to go about this?The truth is we all regularly struggle with this dilemma of Lean Leadership. Obviously, the tools can make a person more skilled and knowledgeable in Lean. But having an excellent grasp of SMED and Cellular flow
(skills) doesn't make one a good leader. Knowing the history of TPS (knowledge) better than anyone doesn't make you a good leader. In Job Instruction (TWI), people are taught that just because they are the expert in, say, cylindrical grinding doesn't necessarily make them the expert trainer in cylindrical grinding. In fact, most people are horrible trainers, if they are allowed to train people at all.

The same is true of leadership. The reality is it is too soon for any of us to say that Lean is working in America. Leaders need practice in using, refining, mastering and teaching those skills to others through the organization; this means that leaders need support and time to learn by doing. An effective bottom up approach to lean first starts at the top, using the tools of lean to master key skills. In a sense, it is ALL about the tools! Oh, the irony!Unfortunately, the tools are the natural target for this frustrating problem for the following reason: RIGHT NOW, thousands of managers are touting lean tools and barely have a basic understanding of those tools, simply because it is seen as the latest and greatest thing out there that will raise the stock price. The fact is this: traditional managers don’t understand the lean tools, yet Lean is used as the current best practice that will help us obtain short term results. Not surprisingly, our short term thinking falls short of sustaining the results. Why? See this example at the TWI Blog.

Lean is about people. We need to ask questions about Lean in the context of people, NOT in the context of tools. For example: are managers genuinely focused on changing their management methods and attitudes first, before claiming Lean success after using a tool? How many see the long term for their company and understand how the skills of Lean will get them there? How many are getting back to the basics of management; combining the advantages of craftsmanship and mass production while abandoning the disadvantages of both eras? How many managers use Lean tools to teach people critical thinking, systems thinking and problem solving thinking so that people learn how to help them?

Since Lean is about people, thinking Lean is about attitudes. Our attitude must be to honestly answer these questions, but never be satisfied with the answers so that you can act on them in a systematic way in a “learn by doing” manner.

For more surprises about the fundamentals of lean, please see www.trainingwithinindustry.net.

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