Why Don’t Execs Engage in Lean?

In his article, “Why C level executives don’t engage in ‘lean’”, Steven Spear suggests two reasons:

  1. Lean presented as a kit of system engineering tools which senior leaders feel they can delegate to technologists.
  2. Senior leaders not taught/trained for an environment of continuous improvement/discovery.

I like his reasoning and encourage you to read this short article.


Why C level executives don’t engage in ‘lean’…Two reasons: Delegate to ‘technologists’ or trained to decide, not discover and develop…

Jun 10th, 2010 | By steven_spear | Category: Business Strategy, Featured Article

C level executives are often absent from ‘lean initiatives,’ ‘lean transformations,’ and the like.

This is unfortunate given the truthy cliche, “what is interesting to leaders, is fascinating to followers.”

The question is, “Why?”
Let me suggest two reasons:

  • Lean presented as a kit of system engineering tools which senior leaders feel they can delegate to technologists.
  • Senior leaders not taught/trained for an environment of continuous improvement/discovery.

REASON 1: LEAN=TOOL KIT
The interpretation of lean manufacturing as a kit of system engineering tools, meant for the ’shop floor,’ largely for high volume, low variety, repeated work, certainly impacts senior leaders view that lean is tactical not strategic, technical and not managerial, and a responsibility to be delegated, not embraced.  Here is how I understand the source of that interpretation.

The initial motivations to study Toyota and its Japanese counterparts were simple in the 1980s.  ‘The Japanese’ were ’stealing’ substantial market share from US automakers with affordable, reliable products.

How did that manage that?  The first research showed that (approximately) half the people, with half the inventory, equipment, and space, were producing twice the output every day (See for instance, John Krafcik’s 1988 article, “Triumph of the Lean Production System,” Sloan Management Review, 1988).

The explanation for this ‘half in, twice out’ capacity was multi faceted.  There were the system design approaches that reduced chaos and increased stability–continuous flow rather than job shops, self synchronizing pull rather than push, choreographed standard work (with 5S in cells) rather than improvisational variation.

There was also the very strong emphasis on real time problem solving.  (See for instance J.P. MacDuffie’s article, “The Road to Root Cause: Shop Floor Problem Solving at Three Auto Assembly Plants,” Management Science, April 1997.)  The Machine That Changed the World, for instance, had examples of people dropping what they were doing to swarm problems as they unfolded.

However, much of what has been written about lean has focused exclusively on the tools of stabilization with very little about problem solving.  One nugget: when I was doing my initial research about Toyota, TPS, and lean, I found thousands of books and articles about tools.  Only 3 mentioned ‘jidoka,’ a pillar of the Toyota temple, the underlying principle that all work be designed to identify and call out problems when and where they occur.

In short, if Lean = tools (value stream maps, single minute exchange of dies, 5S, cells, pull systems, super market inventory stores, and the like), managers will delegate to technicians, be they internal or external ‘kaizen jockeys.’

REASON 2: MANAGERS TRAINED FOR DECISION MAKING, NOT DISCOVERY AND DEVELOPMENT

There is an alternative explanation for why C level and other senior leaders don’t embrace lean as a strategic concern.  Their training has largely been about making decisions about transactions, not about making discoveries in pursuit of useful knowledge.

First, let me argue briefly that Toyota’s success has been rooted in an exceptional rate of individual and organizational learning.  It was an awful car maker in the 1950s, achieved parity in productivity by the late 1960s (see Michael Cusumano’s History of the Japanese Automobile Industry), and superiority in affordability and reliability by the 1970s.  Then there was the learning and discovery underpinning expansion in models, brands (Lexus and Scion), regional expansion of design and production, and technological leadership (e.g., hybrid drive).

To be like Toyota, you have to have the skills to learn like Toyota(*: see below for a list of those skills).

The thing is, business managers are not trained to learn/discover.  Rather they are trained to decide about transactions.  Consider the MBA curriculum core:

  • Finance–how to value transactions
  • Accounting–how to track transactions
  • Strategy–taught as a transactional discipline of entering or exiting markets based on relative strength and weakness.
  • OM courses–heavily pervaded by analytical tools (in support of decisions).

Largely absent: scientific method, experimentation, exploration, learning methods, teaching methods, etc.

Therefore, even for those who have seen TPS et al as management systems rooted in organizational learning and broad based, non stop, high velocity discovery are ill prepared to switch from decision mode to discovery mode.

Conclusion: There are two compelling reasons why senior leaders are often absent from lean efforts.  Either they’ve been led to believe that it is the work of the shop floor technocrats for which their responsibility is hiring and funding, or they’re unprepared to lead, engaged in discovery and development, as is actually required.

(*) In The High Velocity Edge, I offer that these skills are expressed in knowing how to
(1) design and operate work processes to see problems as they occur,
(2) solve problems rigorously so the ignorance underpinning them is converted into useful knowledge,
(3) share local discoveries rigorously and vigorously so they are incorporated systemically, and
(4) engage as leaders in developing these skills in those for whom one has responsibility.

See “The Second Toyota Paradox,” by Ward, Liker, Cristiano, and Sobek, in Sloan Management Review, 1995, for examples in product design (cited in Chapter 8 of The High Velocity Edge).

Click the link below to read the article:

Why C level executives don’t engage in ‘lean’…

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