Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What Else Gets in the Way?

Sometimes managers who are very enthusiastic about their kaizen experiences can be the obstacle to improvement in the kaizen way. At one factory the plant manager was one of the most enthusiastic people whom I had ever met.  After a couple of successful workshops with gratifying results he was ready to have “a kaizen event a week.”
This became a problem for one of the reasons I have already mentioned. The support systems for the new, lean, one-piece-flow, work to takt time approach were not in place.  The maintenance system could not respond when equipment went down.  There was not a system of supplying materials in small amounts.  Water-spiders from the early workshops would get drafted to do production work to cover for absenteeism.  Many of the products were fairly low volume, but suppliers brought in huge amounts of components.
I frequently found a need to stand in his path and try to hold him back.  One of his favorite questions for me became, “Is this one of those too broad and not deep enough things?”  My answer was usually “Yes.”
Workers became demoralized because they had seen a better way to work, but had not been supported in the new way.  This plant manager did not understand that the overall production system had to change.  Logistics, purchasing, material handling, maintenance, scheduling, training, human resources management, the approach by supervision all had to become aligned with the lean approach being implemented in value-adding processes.
Workshops begin to show what is possible and, if close enough attention is paid, they also give us indications of how the support systems have to change.  This plant manager did finally begin to understand and work on the support systems, after experiencing some setbacks, and we made some real progress.  Then another problem came along.
The plant manager was made an attractive offer in another company, after barely a year of introducing kaizen.  The president of the company had been actively supportive of the process of becoming lean. He was promoted to a higher position in the holding company at about the same time as the plant manager left the plant.  Both of their replacements had long experiences in conventional operations, batch processing, just-in-case planning, plenty of safety stock on hand.  Their habits were to plan for problems instead of eliminating problems.  Gradually, many of the gains of the first year were lost.
This underlines the critical need for leadership to accomplish kaizen habits and lean approaches.  Leadership involves having a clear concept of the direction that the production process and the culture of the organization needs to take, and persistence in working with people on their habits, paradigms and understanding of the changes that are needed.   Leadership must also stick around.  Unfortunately, the success of good leaders often means they get promoted or attracted to new employers, before the changes have taken hold.
Effective leadership is no small task. When I worked at the Kaizen Institute, we made real efforts to work with and develop leaders.  The results were mixed, not the least because some of our clients simply could not understand the importance of it.

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