Event Lean versus Genuine Lean

There is a topic that I have found myself talking about more and more lately. Perhaps the reason is that many of my speeches and seminars recently have focused on the lean STRATEGY. I don’t mean how lean affects your strategy, although I wrote about that earlier this year in my Leading Lean column. I mean your strategy for lean change. Having personally asked about 50-100 companies recently what their strategy is, 90% of strategies are made up of 3 components: 5S, Kaizen and Training. None of those things are inherently bad. However, I believe two things. First, you need a strategy that fits your unique needs, resources, current condition, culture, problems and goals. If 90% of all lean change strategies are the same, then we clearly are not reflecting that concept. Second, I believe that real lean, genuine lean, is rooted in the principles, behaviors, skills and actions of every person on a real time basis. If the dock supervisor can’t reflect lean thinking at 2 AM when a problem occurs, we will undo all the good stuff done in all those lean events.

I believe this is a real problem. I’m not against lean events. I’m not against kaizen. I’m not against training. I am against the ideal the bulk of our change plan is made up of EVENTS. Too much focus on events can lead people to ignore the more organic, real-time changes that are required. I was at a company that was doing a great job at kaizens. But the kaizen team was moving through the factory from one end to the other. I met with the assembly team. They had done a great kaizen event 9 months earlier. They had other ideas for improvement. “Why haven’t you done those things?” I asked. The answer: “we’re waiting for our next kaizen.” Strange, but true, and unfortunately all too common.

I wrote about this topic in my book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean. It was in the 3rd chapter on Pitfalls. I put it forth on the list, not as an intentional ranking, but in retrospect I should have made it #1. Although it will make this a long blog posting, I wanted to share an excerpt from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean on this pitfall, which I call Event Lean Prevents A Company from Becoming Genuinely Lean.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean excerpt:

Several years ago, a Tier 1 automotive supplier in Michigan was promoted in a series of billboards that said “14,751 kaizens and counting,” or something in that ballpark. This began the company’s promotion about its lean journey and kaizen events. It also began a round of event-driven lean in the auto industry. The company featured in the billboards failed to produce sustainable results, although it did produce tremendous short-term results.

Outsiders to the operation, either contractors or internal consultants, predominately lead and plan event lean. A company reports event lean results separately and distinctly from operational results. And its leaders discuss event lean within the organization as if it is an entity that people can touch. This highlights a fundamental problem: event lean is separate, distinct, and disconnected, and never becomes an integral part of an organization. A company is doomed to play catch-up by staging enough lean events to drive out the waste it produces from actual operations.

Early on in a company’s lean efforts, event lean can be successful. It is visible because it is markedly different. Event lean delivers results because it is highly structured to do so. But genuine lean is absent. Genuine lean cannot be distinguished from how companies operate because . . . it is how companies operate. Genuine lean is built into an organization’s culture, people, planning, problem-solving—everything its people do, touch, or say. A company can not create genuine lean overnight, and may, in fact, need event lean to help get it there. But too much reliance on event lean prevents a company from achieving genuine lean.

Why is event lean bad? After all, it does produce results. Undesirably, organizations create a pattern of turning lean on and off like a light switch. This leads to a barrier that prevents the daily integration of lean. It also means that if lean can be turned off, it can remain off for an extended period. A company that gets stuck in event lean has a tremendous tendency, when times get tough, to back off or stop lean efforts. Because a lean event takes some investment in time and resources, managers think they can hold off on the investment until conditions improve. Meanwhile, skills and momentum get stale, waste creeps back in, and cynicism about management’s commitment becomes a legitimate barrier. Few companies that turn the lean switch off for awhile can easily turn it back on again.

Another reason event lean is bad is that it only engages some of the employees some of the time. In an assessment of one Kansas company’s lean efforts it was discovered that the assembly area had not had a kaizen event in nine months. Kaizen was the dominant form of lean in the company. However, since an event had not been planned in such a long time, employees in the assembly area believed lean was over. They had not seen lean in nine months and management had no idea of the problem because it was busy with lean in another area of the organization.

Lean is like a muscle; the more it is used, the stronger it grows. Conversely, if an employee only experiences a lean event every few months, he or she has no chance to strengthen the muscle and it begins to atrophy. Because a company is really investing in the skills and capacity of the organization to create change, event lean does not yield progressive results. Each event strains unused muscles again and again, and the organization never grows stronger and never reaches the next plateau.
How can a company avoid getting trapped by the event lean pitfall? First, it should create a small but living model of genuine lean early. This may not contribute major results to the bottom line right away. The model is meant to be small and, to a degree, isolated—a Lean Learning LaboratoryTM. In essence, what is created is a small team of people who are centered on a common process. They essentially have to work together and build lean principles, practices, skills, and tools into their team. This living model can develop into a standard against which to compare the rest of the organization.

An event lean cycle also can be avoided by assessing the results well after a lean event is held. At some organizations, it makes sense to re-review the results of a kaizen one week, one month, and three months after the event is held. After one week there is usually some deterioration in the new process; after three months, it may be completely wiped out. The problem is that lean events do not leave new lean thinking or skills behind, and old thinking recreates old processes over time. Instead of measuring and rewarding people based on results they achieve on the day of a lean event, measurements and rewards should be based on the results posted three months after the event. This ensures that managers pay attention to the cultivation of a lean culture and capability as well as the short-term achievements of the lean event.
A third way to ensure event lean becomes genuine lean is to role model the behavior. Managers are comfortable with their event lean roles—they sponsor the event and show up on Friday to congratulate the team. Managers should not be allowed to stay in this false commitment pattern. They should be models of lean, visibly using its principles and practices to solve everyday problems, make everyday decisions, and contribute to tomorrow’s performance. Setting this pattern at the management level creates the right example for everyone else in the organization.

I hope that helps, and welcome other input and ideas. If you are interested in more from this book, there is another full chapter available for download on the book’s website. www.hitchhikersguidetolean.com.

Please check out my main blog page at www.leanblog.org

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Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor. These companies range from high-performance motorcycles to SaaS tools for continuous improvement. He has advised over 300 companies around the world in lean transformation, including Intel, Harley-Davidson, Crayola, BMW, and Amazon. Jamie co-authored the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, and continues to share his experiences as a Contributing Editor forIndustryWeek and as a blogger at JamieFlinchbaugh.com. He holds degrees from Lehigh University, University of Michigan, and MIT, and continues to teach and mentor on campus. Jamie is best known for helping to transform how we think about lean from a tools-centric model to one based on principles and behaviors. His passion for lean transformation comes from seeking to unlock the great potential that people possess to build inspiring organizations.

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