Categories : Lean Manufacturing Principles


It’s important to define the word “help” when the client is saying it!

I had a call from a company and they told me they wanted me to help them implement lean in their facility. It is always exciting to hear from potential new clients particularly in this economy. I shared my background and lean experiences with the caller and asked a few questions of my own about the needs of the company. The phone call lasted about 20 minutes. Before ending the call we scheduled a conference call at a later date to discuss the matter in more detail and to include a couple of other important people in the conversation.

Lean Program

Lean Program

The day arrived and the call took place at the schedule time. I found myself talking with the Production Manager, and their General Manager. Our discussion started with the usual cordial exchanges and getting to know one another before we entered into the detail of the proposed lean implementation.  Each of the managers took turns to present their ideas for me and try to paint a picture of their specific needs. During the exchanges I asked some pertinent questions to clarify some to their points. The conversation was going really well and I thought I had made a good case and enough of an impression to land the contract to provide services. I went over my ideas for training their people to a level of competency where they could be capable of establishing and managing their own continuous improvement process. It was nearing the end of my delivery when the bombshell came.

The General Manager said, “I am so sorry to interrupt you but I don’t think you quite understand what we are asking you to do. We want you to implement our lean program for us and once you have it fully established, we want you to hand it over to one of our own people.” I was paraphrasing but I repeated the statement back to the General Manager just to make sure I had heard him correctly. He said “Yes, that is what I just said and you heard me correctly.” There was a dull silence on the phone while I thought for a moment trying to decide how to reply to his statement. When locked in a state of uncertainty I follow my standard practice of asking a question. “What would be the benefit of getting me to implement your continuous process improvement program using lean principles?” He was very clear in his reply as he said, “We would shorten our learning curve and have a better lean management system overall.” I found myself a little distracted as I began to feel an internal rush of satisfaction as I converted his words into a kind of a complement but it did not last for long. Let me get this right as I entered into a silent mind conversation, he wants me to do the all work for his company and then hand it over to someone else once I have trained his people and established the entire program. The revenue I would receive for the time it would take for me to do this would be great, however the benefit to the company would be little to nothing! Why do they want to do it this way?

A key element of into any organization is to establish a culture that is capable of learning and improving. An organization that cannot learn will not be able to improve and therefore will be unsuccessful at implementing and integrating lean principles. How do I know this? Why am I convinced this is true?  Many companies have tried and tested the same idea over the years. They bring in a top consultant to set up their program and then hand it over to one of their own employees. Within a short period the consultant leaves, soon after that the system starts to become ineffective and eventually fails. Why?

The employees in the company are not committed and do not have the desire or motivation to understand or get involved in the process. The reason for this is because they perceive the introduction of the new system as a management directive or another flavor of the month.  Those of us who have been involved in the implementation of lean principles over the last two decades know very well how these type of communicates are received by employees. Not very well! Implementing lean is counterintuitive for most people. It is not like implementing a canned software package. It must be developed over time and implemented by employees to achieve an integrated and sustainable process.

The system built on the back of a consultant is like a house of cards because when the contract ends and the person is no longer working with the company, cards will start to fall, one by one. An organization must be willing to challenge itself and its processes through learning and experimentation. A lean consultant is better employed as a coach or a mentor who guides the employees of the company through the lean implementation process. Lean is a “learning by doing” activity, which means employees have to learn about lean principles, and then go to their work area to implement them and try to improve it.  The act of doing (or execution) allows them to buy-in to the changes being implemented and empowers them to take responsibility by participating in the process. In my world, my definition of a consultant is someone who works themselves out of a job as a result of transferring their knowledge to employees to increase the internal capability of a company. It is not my place to do the work for the company, I can share the heavy lifting and be a guide but I can never be the owner of the process. The employees must own it knowing they have the full commitment and support of the leadership team.

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