I love it when I have a chance to meet Lean Blog readers and Twitter followers in the “real world.” In the past few weeks, I’ve finally met, in person, @flynncraig and @bryanlvt (at the Dan Jones Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit in the UK).
Last night, I had a chance to meet (in Boston) long-time reader Ralf Lippold (@RalfLippold), from Germany. Ralf has always commented and contributed to the blog, particularly helping to tie Lean and system dynamics fields together.
Before dinner, Ralf asked a simple question that I often ask of my podcast guests… where did you get started with Lean? I think he said, “Was it because a boss told you to learn learn?
Ah, I haven’t thought about that in a while. So I reflected and told a few stories. Although it might be bad form to blog about myself, I’ll share a few of the stories and images that help shape my view of Lean and the world I’m trying to improve.
As a kid, our family visits to the grandparents took me to outside of Youngstown Ohio and Flint Michigan.
As we approached my grandparents’ house outside of town, the scenes in Ohio looked like this, empty, rusted, closed down steel mills in the valleys we drove past:
I thought, “how sad.” Why did these companies have to crumble and decline? Why were the surrounding towns so bleak?
Flint was, even at that time, a decaying GM town. The sign on I-75 coming into Flint used to be a huge proud “Buick City” sign. Now, it’s an ad for a casino. These images of crumbling, decaying factories stick in my head. No business is permanent and entitled to success forever.
Yes, I went to the failed AutoWorld attraction. Twice, I think. It’s been 25 years since it failed, as highlighted by Forbes recently.
Indeed, the rides weren’t thrilling and sometimes didn’t work – literally. Two rides, the Humorous History of Automobility and The Great Race, shut down on AutoWorld’s second day because of malfunctions.
My dad, who worked for GM for 40 years, came home from work in 1987 or 1988 or so, when I was still in high school, talking about Dr. Deming and his four-day seminar. It stuck in my head that Dr. Deming was an important figure. (Post continues after ad)
In undergrad days at Northwestern, I learned from Mark Spearman and Factory Physics that, in a nutshell, “MRP bad, Lean good.” Lean meant, basically, pull systems and kanban and flow. I didn’t really understand it as a management system, although Spearman and Hopp covered that a bit. I was a big nerd and read Deming’s Out of the Crisis on my own and it all seemed to make sense, even with my limited workplace experience at the mall selling Nintendo games. Deming’s quote, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory” really resonated with me (see above, Flint and Youngstown).
I chose to work at GM because the Powertrain division and the Livonia Engine Plant made the pitch that they had learned from Dr. Deming and operated under what they called “The Livonia Philosophy” that included strong cooperation between management and union. I quickly learned the so-called philosophy was nothing but a bunch of large posters on the wall. Dr. Deming would NOT have appreciated that irony, I’m sure. In fact, I’ll dig up my old Livonia Philosophy documents and maybe I can post some of that. Can the “Old GM” sue me for that?
So that plant was NOT a lean environment. Typical traditional “management by yelling and embarrassing people” when things went badly. And badly they went. Quality was poor, costs were high, productivity was low, and morale was terrible.
I heard everything:
- “They want me to check my brain at the door.”
- “They hired me for my back, not my brain.”
- “I want to stop the line to do my quality checks, but management says keep the line running.”
It was sad. Not at a “the buildings are empty and crumbling” way, like Youngstown and Flint, but in a more micro level, as in “Why is it that people hate coming to work?” level. I re-read Deming. People should be allowed to have pride in their work. Management needs to quit destroying people over the course of their 30 years of UAW work, needs to quit making people miserable.
I saw the pain caused by bad management. And I vowed to do better.
The plant had a very talented team of internal consultants who had been hired from Toyota suppliers, Nissan, and other companies that were much more Lean than GM. But we couldn’t say “Lean” due to union politics. These Lean Thinkers were hired by Powertrain corporate… but the local plant management wanted NOTHING to do with them. The consultants were banished to a far corner of the plant and ostracized, basically.
So, the young engineer who wanted to learn, combined with bored mentors looking to teach… I learned a ton. There was plenty of waste to see first hand. Plenty to talk about in terms of how things SHOULD be done. They invested a lot of time in me and taught me a lot.
Then, after a year of horrible performance, we finally got a new plant manager, Larry Spiegel, who was NUMMI trained and he was great. I finally saw what good leadership looked like. The internal Lean consultants were turned loose and we started training and coaching people. We started fixing things. I learned a lot of great leadership and change management lessons… and I was hooked.
So my motivations for believing in Lean and wanting to promote it are pretty personal and pretty deeply felt. Even though I’m an engineer and a recovering MBA, Lean is not strictly logical to me. It’s as emotional as it is logical. That gets me in trouble sometimes, but that’s me.
People should be able to enjoy their work. It’s about that simple.
When I started working in hospitals in 2005 and started hearing the same things… people were miserable at work, didn’t feel listened to, not appreciated… I almost felt like I was re-living aspects of 1995 to 1997 as I went through 2005 to 2007, except I was in hospitals instead of a factory.
Lean is not easy work, but the motivation remains!!!
What’s your story?
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