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Steering the wrong course



Published October 8, 2008
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Over the past year I've written about ways that you, the label converter, can make successful inroads on your Lean journey. This month we'll take a different tack and discuss how things can go wrong, terribly wrong, and derail or even stop your journey dead in its tracks.

Not having a plan


Unless you're Jack Kerouac, no one should start off on a journey without having at least some idea of where they want to go. You need at least to know the direction in which you wish to travel, and to have some idea of how you're going to get there. I often tell people to imagine having to play a football game and not having a playbook and not knowing which end zone you need to head toward.

In The Company (2002), a novel of the CIA that weaves fictional characters into real events from World War II to the 1990s, one of the main characters is lamenting yet another failed uprising behind the Iron Curtain, this time in 1956. Hungarian refugees are fleeing a Soviet military invasion after an attempted revolution, one that the "Company" both helped to foment then failed to support when push came to shove. It was yet another example of Company leadership failing to deliver on promises, in part because Company leaders felt that all they had to do was plant the seed of change and human nature would take its course from there. Obviously the uprising failed, we all remember those infamous photographs of Soviet tanks in Budapest, and a brutal repression continued for decades. Watching the scene unfold before him, the character proclaims, "The problem with the world is that men think, for their ship to come in, all they need to do is put to sea. They've lost the capacity for celestial navigation. They've lost true north."

That, to me, is the key reason behind so many Lean implementation failures. Leaders today have "lost the capacity for celestial navigation"… they've "lost true north." They feel that, for their company to become Lean, all they have to do is "put to sea" and somehow, some way, they'll get to wherever it is that Lean will take them. They fail to recognize that they need to navigate, to read the stars and actively steer a course toward "True North."

True North


In a presentation at the 2002 AME Conference, Hajime Ohba, vice president and general manager of the Toyota Supplier Support Center, referred to True North as the "Vision of the Ideal." To keep yourself pointed toward True North, Ohba noted, we must always do "what we should do, not what we can do." Everyone must think this way, every minute of every day. Only then are you steering your journey toward your True North.

The truth is most companies rarely think of continual improvement once a week, let alone every minute of every day. Most Lean efforts are a subset of some other staff or operations function, and Lean comes to the forefront only when a crisis arises. By that time its too late, folks. The Titanic has already struck the iceberg and it's only a matter of time before she (you) slips under the waves.

If you're on top of your Lean efforts, every day, and you keep your eye on what you should be doing by charting a course and following it, you'll be able to steer clear of the icebergs that could sink your company and you'll continue safely on your journey toward True North.

So you need to ask yourself: Are you doing what you should do, not just what you can do?

Tool time


Companies that fail to plan out their Lean journey are typically companies who suffer from "tool-itis." Toolitis is the mistaken belief that by simply applying a Lean tool here or there can make a company Lean. Toolitis is deadly to Lean.

Tools are critical, but tools alone cannot make you Lean. I know how to use a saw, a hammer, and a level, but don't ever ask me to build anything (just ask my dad!). Knowing how to use these tools doesn't make me a carpenter. You need to have a clear understanding of how to apply these tools in support of your Lean efforts. Your plan is your blueprint, and that blueprint will tell you what tools you need to use.

Having cheerleaders instead of trueleaders


I hear it all the time: Top management "supports" Lean. Supporting Lean is not enough. Showing up at event kickoffs and wrap-up meetings is not enough. Proclaiming support for Lean during plant meetings is not enough. Spending money on outside consultants or allowing employees to hold meetings and kaizen events is not enough. Leaders need to lead. Sounds silly, I know, but it just doesn't happen enough. Companies that have leaders engaged in their Lean efforts succeed; companies with leaders who are disengaged fail.

A failure to communicate


In his book How to Prevent Lean Implementation Failures (1994), Larry Rubrich writes that the lack of communication is reason number two (lack of top management support is reason number one).
There are many ways that leaders fail at communicating. They state that teamwork is key, yet don't allow time for teams to effectively accomplish their tasks. Ask yourself this: How many times have you been in a class or a meeting and someone either arrived late, left early, kept getting up and leaving to attend to some other matter, or never showed up at all? Where's the teamwork? True Lean leaders make sure that teams have not only the time to get their work done but the resources as well, and those resources include getting backup for team members so that they are not interrupted time and time again.

The party's over


What do you do after a successful event? Are you like most companies, which hold celebrations at the end of an event on Friday and then go right back to the same old, same old on Monday morning? This occurs when there is a failure to plan, when no one has an idea of which direction to go next, when you use tools to fix a specific problem without recognizing how this problem fits into the big picture, and by not communicating what the next steps should be.

Teach, don't tell


Too many Lean efforts rely too heavily on classroom training and not enough on actual implementation. Just like leaders who need to get out of their chairs and out onto the floor, teams need to be taught how to do something and not simply be told how to do it. Toyota's Taiichi Ohno once said, "Understanding means doing." Learning Lean is very kinesthetic; you have to go out and actually do something in order to fully understand.

There's no crying in Lean


Everyone makes mistakes – I certainly have – but a mistake is an opportunity to learn and to grow. Seize these opportunities and learn from them and don't wallow in doubt and self-pity. Follow up your Friday celebrations with a complete review of what went well, what didn't, and what can be done differently to keep you on your course toward True North. If you do this you will never fail.


Tom Southworth is a business development manager with CONNSTEP, Connecticut's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). He is a senior member of ASQ, an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality & Organizational Excellence, and is an SME Lean Bronze Certified-Sensei. He can be reached by email at tsouthworth@connstep.org.


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