Leadership Is Critical to Lean
Most companies develop managers, not leaders, and without leaders no company can implement lean principles
Virtually every manufacturing company in America is attempting to implement Lean principles, but aside from Toyota or their major Japanese suppliers, what companies can claim to be Lean? If you know of any, please let me know. I was recently asked, "How do we sustain continuous improvement to attain our Lean initiatives?" I suddenly realized that the question was an oxymoron (a combination of incongruous or contradictory terms). "Sustain" means to continue something that you have done in the past, while "continuous improvement" explicitly indicates constant change. The two represent the past versus the future. It also came to me that the main problem with companies unable to implement Lean successfully is the difference between leading and managing. Very simply you manage the "past," and you lead change for the "future." Lean needs leaders!
The dictionary is not that helpful when you seek a definition of the words "leader" and "manager." But one appropriate definition from my dictionary of manager is: "a person who controls and manipulates resources." A manager looks at the past to determine how to do things in the future, while a leader creates a vision of what is possible and builds a new future. A manager likes to make decisions based on historical accounting data, with the thought that what worked in the past should work in the future, while the leader looks at what is happening now, knows that the future can be much different than the past, and carefully plans for the future.
Traditional managers have been taught to work through layers of subordinate managers. When a senior manager is presented with a problem, he/she discusses it with the subordinate and then normally tells them to take care of it and report back. But in a Lean system, leaders are encouraged to "learn for themselves." This approach might be called "management by walking around." The late, great Taiichi Ohno, co-inventor of the Toyota Production System and former VP of Manufacturing for Toyota, would draw a circle on the middle of the factory floor, and insist the senior executive stand in the circle for a day to begin to learn how to see operations. He insisted that leaders "wash their hands at least three times a day" to make sure that they would get their hands dirty working in the factory. He also insisted that the senior manager's office be right in the middle of the factory, for he wanted the "power" to be where it was needed; when it was needed.
Do you want to be Lean? Then you must lead Lean on a daily basis. Remember, the manager is often caught in the past while the leader is watching the "now" and planning for the future.
Not long ago, you could walk through a factory and see virtually nothing on the walls. In a Toyota factory, the walls are filled with charts, pictures, sayings; hundreds of constant reminders to workers that tell them how to continuously improve. The famous Andon system, with lights on the ceiling, is designed to share information about the status of production: every worker knows if the plant is ahead of or behind schedule, and also knows when anyone in the plant is in trouble and needs help.
I have compiled a list of differences between managers and leaders. Please take a look at the list; it's entitled "Leadership versus Management." What follows below are my observations on key differences between leaders and managers.
Independent thinking. Taiichi Ohno would never tell you what to do. He would encourage all of his managers to only ask workers what to do, not tell them. "Allow them to use their own energies to learn," he insisted. He once stood in front of a warehouse of one of Toyota's major suppliers and said, "At Toyota we don't need warehouses. Make this building into a machine shop, and retrain everyone to be a mechanic. And do it in one year." He didn't tell them how to execute this assignment. He just asked them to do it. Of course, his managers were all petrified, but one year later the warehouse became a machine shop, and all of the workers were retrained to be mechanics.
Back in 1980, I started the Productivity Newsletter and tried to determine what was making certain Japanese manufacturers so successful. My first discovery was Quality Control Circles, which organized virtually all workers into small groups of perhaps five to nine people, to study quality problems. Managers asked the workers to be involved. They recognized that the worker doing the job had "brains," and that the worker knew his job better than his supervisor.
On my first trips to Japan in 1981, almost every company visited showed us its Quality Circles activities. I thought that Quality Circles were the reason for their success. Subsequently, I discovered the Toyota Production System and the power it gave to Toyota, but even at Toyota their small group activities played a major role.
I have been a New York Giants football fan since I was five years old, and I was thrilled to watch the Giants beat the Green Bay Packers and reach the Super Bowl. The team was great, rising far above expectations, but we also know the vital role the coach played to help lead and coordinate all of the team's activities, among them training, calling the plays, or inspiring the players to reach out to achieve greatness.
Eliminate waste, show respect. Toyota claims two pillars for their success: Just In Time (JIT) or the elimination of all the non-value-adding wastes, and Respect for People. You show people your respect by continually developing them, continually challenging them to learn to be better on the job, and allowing them to fully participate in identifying and solving problems. (Whenever a worker at Toyota discovers a problem, they "pull the cord," stop the line, and immediately attempt to find solutions to prevent the problem from occurring again.)
Praise. When I was a young manager, I could not praise a worker. My father never praised me, and my teachers rarely ever praised me; but in reading management books I saw that praise was necessary. So, one day, I walked into my keypunch room, very determined, looked down at a young lady, took a deep breath and said: "I want to thank you for doing such good work on the Budweiser job." As she looked up, tears came to my eyes, and I felt a sweetness I never really felt before. I realized at that moment the power of praise, and what I was missing. I not only saw how good my praise was for her, but also how good it made me feel. Now, Ohno had a different view. He might praise you for a few seconds but immediately gave you new challenges. He never let you "rest on your laurels."
Checklists. Leaders use checklists. Why does an airline pilot use checklists? The pilot does pretty much the same thing every day, so why use checklists? Of course, you know why. The lives of all the passengers depend upon the pilot's performance being perfect, and the pilot doesn't want to leave anything to their memory, for people do forget. Well, if we want to be perfect in what we and others do in our organization, then it is a must to learn how to properly use checklists.
I recently read that, at a Rhode Island Hospital, a doctor—for the third time last year—operated on the wrong side of a patient's brain. When I was operated on 30 years ago by one of the world's top three urologists, he always had a checklist when he came to see me. A typical entry: "Third day after the operation, see if the sutures are ready to come out." If he learned something new while examining me, he simply added it to his checklist. At Toyota, every leader carries a copy of their A3, a report to remind them what their goals are for the year, and what they should be looking for daily.
Overcome resistance. Isaac Newton said: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." This means that every time you want to drive change, some force will try to prevent that change. Most of the time, when you want to pursue a new approach, there is something going on in your mind that tells you, "don't do it, you might make a mistake." A leader recognizes that there will always be resistance to change, but knows how to overcome that resistance and move on, while a manager just finds excuses not to change.
Ideas from workers. I once published a book titled, Twenty Million Ideas in Thirty Years at Toyota. At one time, the average Toyota worker submitted 70 improvement ideas per year. In America, the average is closer to one idea every seven years. I call the system for encouraging such improvement ideas "Quick and Easy Kaizen." It is a leader's job to get as many creative ideas as possible from all workers.
Let them do it. When I first visited Toyota in 1981, workers were allowed to post their jobs on a bulletin board once a week to rotate. Today workers at Toyota rotate every two hours.
Personal growth. People at Toyota submit their personal growth plans for the year, and then meet with their supervisor every three months to review their needs and progress.
Don't fear mistakes. Often people are afraid of making a mistake and are therefore afraid to make decisions. I like the phrase: "It is better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission." I found that—most times—when you ask a senior manager to allow you to do something new, the answer is "No."
Use sayings to encourage. Many leaders in Japan come up with "sayings." These are words that inspire people to rise to their greatness. I challenge American leaders to study why "sayings" are important, and then to come up with new "sayings" that will be appropriate for their company. For example, I like the Lexus motto of "The passionate pursuit of perfection." It is a wonderful phrase to motivate people to continuously improve.
There's an old saying, "A chain is only as strong as the weakest link." Every worker is an important "link" in your company, and must be part of the continuous-improvement process. We can see the importance of strengthening each member on a baseball, basketball, or football team, but somehow have ignored the power of developing team activities in our companies. To be successful in this fiercely competitive world, you must harness the talents of every single worker, and the best way to do this is by establishing teams at every level. You can see the power of the Kaizen Blitz, but somehow you don't look at this as a daily event that involves everyone.
A manager in the past limited people's growth. The old saying was: "come to work, but leave your brains at home." In contrast, a leader sees infinite possibilities within each worker, and guides and encourages the worker to be creative on the job.
A manager supports the status quo, and often uses fear as a management tool. Ask people in your company what they think about making mistakes. Most people are afraid to make a mistake; they believe a mistake may get them fired. How many people in your company were fired when they made a mistake? A leader is aware that everyone makes mistakes, and that people really learn from their mistakes. At Hino Motors in Japan, I recently saw a bulletin board with around 30 sheets of paper on it, each with a picture of a worker. When a worker makes a mistake, they go over to their picture and write up a description of the mistake, and what they plan to do to see that it doesn't happen again. They share their mistakes with their fellow workers. They don't hide mistakes the way we do over here.
If you want to be Lean, then you need Lean leaders. You need a company filled with people who want to be the very best in what they do. You need an environment where people work hard but do not live in fear of losing their jobs. Understand that continuous improvement means improvement every day, not just "when you get around to it." Choose to be a leader, set the example, and challenge others around you to also become leaders.
Norman Bodek is a consultant, winner of the Shingo Prize, and author of The Idea Generator, and Kaikaku; The Power and Magic of Lean. He recently published a translation from Japanese of a "new" book by the late Shigeo Shingo, the coinventor of the Toyota Production System, entitled Kaizen and the Art of Creative Thinking. Mr. Bodek was the first to publish English translations of important books by Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo that presented the Toyota Production System to the world outside Japan. His translations were key elements in the initiation of the Lean movement in the US.
This article was first published in the March 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.