The lean manager

Posted on 11 Sep 2009 by The Manufacturer

Dan Jones: Decent management is they key to orchestrating lean transformation

Where can you experience what it feels like to be a lean manager and where can you learn about the personal and organisational changes involved in leading a lean transformation? Listening to the stories of pioneers can be inspiring and visiting lean examples can open your eyes. But for most people that is rarely enough. Some of the toughest lessons are learnt from things that did not work.

We are all familiar with the lean tools and analysing and mapping value streams. More and more organisations are recognising that the crucial missing element that makes lean really successful is management. If managers don’t recognise the need to change the way they work and the way they lead then lean is doomed to fail. So the question is of utmost importance.

The answer is to be found in the most unlikely place! Over the summer I read several books. But the one that stood out head and shoulders for me was The Lean Manager by Michael and Freddy Balle. I read it from cover to cover without stopping, even getting up in the middle of the night to read it! Even though I had read some of the earlier drafts!

It tells a compelling story that I think every plant manager will relate to. A new lean CEO arrives and threatens to close the plant for very good reasons — costs are too high and they let their customers down on a regular basis. But the plant manager rises to the challenge and gradually wins the respect and support of the CEO to turn the plant round. But he has to learn to do it himself.

The novel is a great device and worth reading for the story alone. However what makes this truly powerful and will make you read it again and again is the wisdom and experience that lies behind it. Scattered throughout are nuggets of gold, really useful checklists that summarise the different aspects of lean management.

Separate thinking and doing

This book is the first really comprehensive distillation of the transformation methods developed over the years by Taiichi Ohno’s own department at Toyota, which became the Operations Management Consulting Division, the guardians of the most advanced lean knowledge in the organisation. Freddy Balle, the father of lean at Valeo and several other French car suppliers, was a lifelong disciple of OMCD and he and his son and author Michael have been learning and reflecting on what they learnt from OMCD in helping many organisations since Freddy retired.

In a recent blog, John Shook reflected that probably the biggest breakthrough that Toyota made was in reversing Frederic Taylor’s separation of thinking and doing. Instead of deploying systems invented by staff experts, focus on the people actually doing the value creating work and the process that links them together. Toyota calls this “developing people before making products” and “respect for people”. In other words turning every employee into a scientist, using the scientific method to analyse and improve their own work and how they work with their upstream and downstream colleagues.

A process or value stream that is tightly synchronised so that value is created with minimum delay and waste actually makes all the interruptions visible. It can only work if the staff who are running the process are able to see what is happening so they can respond to it immediately and then over time improve the process by tracking the root causes of persistent interruptions.

This in turn changes the role of management from firefighting to mentoring the skills of their subordinates and guiding them to think about the right things in the right way. This is the beginning of a very different form of management.

What The Lean Manager does so well is to illustrate why each of the old mental models that we have in our heads about the way we manage do not work, including telling people what to do. It traces the step-by-step realisation that lean managers learn by acting their way into a new way of thinking. The lessons are tough but the results are very rewarding. This landmark book will, I am sure, become a valued guide for every lean manager.

Dan Jones is founder and chairman of thr Lean Enterprise Academy