Q&A #1 – Michael Balle, "The Lean Manager"


I recently invited questions for Michael Balle, the author of the Shingo Prize winning book The Gold Mine: A Novel of Lean Turnaround. He has a new book (published by LEI, my employer), recently published, called “The Lean Manager.”

Here is the first Q&A, if you have a question for Michael, click here for more info on how to submit them. If you have a question in response to this post, please the comments feature.

Q: I'm looking forward to reading the Q&A with Michael Balle. Here's a question I'm curious about:

One of the more surprising parts of “The Gold Mine” was the firing of the senior manager. To me it acknowledged that even with a Lean focus on “respect for people” there are cases where there are individuals who are roadblocks to improvement and need to go. The situation is made worse when these same people are supposed to be leaders of the effort. Do you have any more advice (in the new book or otherwise) as to how to tell when to focus on education (or re-eduction) and when a person needs to leave in order for the transformation to work?

Answer from Michael:

MichaelBallePhotoThanks for the good words on The Gold Mine, and yes, this is a rather tricky question – one that the characters of The Lean Manager spend a lot of time grappling with. This is a thorny issue, so bear with me as I try to answer without being too glib.

My character Bob Woods' take on the matter is that he'd replace all of us with someone better if he knew how, but since he can't he's going to train the people he has until he finds that better person – by which time, often, the person you've trained grew to be better than anyone else you find on the job market if you're mindful of the “grass is always greener” temptation of hiring externally. My own take on this is that you lose people at the front, and you've got to live with it. I've had many reactions to The Gold Mine about the firing of the logistics guy, but the company was hurt far worse by Amaranta's decision to leave. In the event, you lose people constantly. Losing roadblocks might make you progress, but not as much as losing leaders slows you down – and that's a critical issue to have in mind when you start taking hard decisions: what signal are you sending every one else.

One lesson I've had to re-learn time and time again on the shop floor is that P = P + M, Performance is the result of the right People using the right Method. The cool thing about lean is that it gives you a proven, very rigorous and detailed method about how to go about doing your work, so, if the person is willing to learn, that part of the equation is solved. But it still needs the right person. The very first thing his sensei told my father when they started to tackle the issue of building a lean system company-wide across dozens of plants was that TPS entirely rests on the plant managers. And indeed, even with a lean system in place, a good manager will improve things slowly, and a poor one will run things down very quickly – and Toyota is not exempt from that, they've taken their hits as well.

Now: what is the right person? You need someone with two basic traits: sound judgment (what matters, what doesn't, which risks to take, which not to) and the ability to work with others (not every one, but some). AND, if you're trying to do lean, you also need them to be fairly open minded – kind of a tall order.

Typically, people who know what they're doing are not particularly open because, well, they know what they're doing and those who are always interested in something new don't know what they're doing (six sigma didn't work? Quick, lean's going to save us!). The entry ticket to lean is being able to stand on your own patch and admit (often publicly and in front of your boos) that you're WRONG, and that there could be a better way of doing things. When you're in over your head, this is painful but unavoidable (it shows). But when you're considered one of the good guys (and probably are) – it can be intolerable. To become good a lean one needs a strange blend of self-confidence in one's skill and knowledge (which is a real issue for consultants) as well as the humility to realize that no process is ever perfect and kaizen is a an ongoing thing – it never stops, there's no end point and, in any case, something else always happens.

As I said, bear with me, I am getting to the point. The problem here is that first, most management teams don't have a clear ideal of what the right person is – they usually go by relationships and reputations, and secondly it's pretty damn hard to identify the right persons.

First, in the midst of a lean transformation, the criteria for being right and wrong change. Second people reacting strongly are not necessarily wrong. As a lean coach, one of my personal challenges is to bring the people who are recognized as being technically good on board, no matter how reluctant and grumpy they are. This has helped me many times, because, even if they don't want to hear anything about this lean stuff, they teach everybody else things we really need to know about the real nature of our problems at the parts/process level. Some guys will never get the self-challenging attitude required for lean – but you most definitely don't want to lose them. They know too much. The problem is getting them in a position where they don't pollute every one with the negative attitude. Conversely, others are all gung ho about lean and keep making silly mistakes with large consequences and they might be on your camp, but still a disaster.

So, the first thing is to realize we do want a certain type of people (technical knowledge comes first, then a modicum of people skills and open-mindedness) and the second CRITICAL point is to accept that we are all naturally quite bad at figuring out who is who. We're just biased to the people we like or that suck up to us and that's that. Accepting these two points one of the first things we do when we start a lean effort is to have an explicit regular debate about what we think of the key people. This is not to take decisions, this is to build a coherent picture of who they are, and what needs to be done to develop them. The two criteria of this debate are:

  1. results: people perform or they don't (and anywhere in between)
  2. system: they use the lean system or they don't (well, indifferently, poorly or fight against it)

This is a basic lean framework of checking process against performance. In an ideal world we want only people who have the right results by using the lean tools and principles, and as the people with poor results and who don't want to use the system, well, sooner or later something will happen. But life isn't like that, and often some people get results, but refuse to use the lean system, and others try very hard at lean, without the results.

The core principle here is “making people before making parts“, so just as we develop a Plan for Every Part, we try to have a Plan for Every Person. This is not a one time exercise, this is continuously going to the gemba, looking at how they keep their visual management, solve problems, use the tools for kaizen and work with their own staff and, slowly, a more consistent image of the person emerges (independently of their personal quirks and style), and with that what where we'd like them to go next.

So, to your point. Should we fire some? In practice, this tends to be rare. What happens is that disagreements build up over one gemba session after another and people generally chose to find work elsewhere because it's just not pleasant to fundamentally disagree with your boss.

A few months ago, I was on the shop floor with a plant manager and we were having a heated debate with the quality manager about systematically implementing red bins for bad parts at every station, and organizing rounds to make sure that the management knew what defects the process was producing real time and the quality manager suddenly threw up his hands in anger, turned his back on both of us and left – to put his resignation letter on the plant manager's desk right then and there. We just stood gobsmacked. The fact is that this guy really believed that ISO systems were more important than red bin and since he had a good rep as a quality manager we were worried of losing him. In the event, it turned out that real quality improved considerably after he left, so no hard feelings.

The people you do get to fire are, in the end, those in absolute denial – they're not cutting it, but they think they are. This is a harder call. They often think they're doing the lean stuff, but somehow they're always getting it backwards or upside down or something and results are never there and people are upset and so on. So, yes, there you need to wield the knife to cut through the self-delusion. But this case usually concerns manager level and upwards, so, again, its rare not to reach an understanding.

Bear in mind that the kind of lean discussed in The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager is driven through the line by the top guy himself or herself, which changes matters considerably.

To answer your question directly, you always focus on education, but education is a collaboration between student and teacher. If the student is not progressing, first the teacher can challenge himself of herself about their teaching methods. If they reach the conclusion that they can't work with that particular student, fair enough, this is a company not a classroom – and chances are the student will also conclude they can't work with that teacher, so usually the situation resolves itself over time. Certainly I can think of some instances where people have had to be fired because of a number of reasons, but on the whole, these are pretty extreme cases.

The point I guess is not to focus on the one or two people who bug you (there's always someone) but to build a structured approach to develop every person – and to spend more energy keeping and nurturing the ones you want to be the future of your company than losing sleep over those you don't. This is the beauty (and the pain) of lean – before we do anything drastic to someone else, let's make sure that we have done our own homework so: 1) have we got a clear image of every person in the results/lean involvement dimensions, 2) have we got the beginning of a plan for every person and 3) then we can start thinking about the extreme situations. Since they are extreme, this becomes a case-by-case issues that gets resolved (or not) on an one-off basis.

Michael is the co-author of The Lean Manager and The Gold Mine, and can be contacted at: http://michaelballe.org.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. First, thoroughly enjoyed reading The Gold Mine. Looking forward to reading The Lean Manager.

    Good post Mark.

    What is the right person (for our journey)? We live this question daily.

    One basic insight, then I’ll shut up until I read Michaels Book.

    It has been our experience that many companies – especially those new to the lean journey have no “high level” agreement on what it is they want or expect from TPS/lean.

    Seems part of the fun would be figuring this out first before hiring champions and managers to wave their lean magic wand.

    This identify crisis makes everyone’s job harder, including mine.

    There are many reasons for this that we hope to illuminate with real life experiences when our new interactive lean career site is launched very soon (plug).

    Meanwhile, we cringe at the waste and damage of talent that can easily be misaligned with fuzzy lean business system missions, purposes, and expectations.

    If a person cannot connect well after the hire, time to reflect on how we got here in the first place.

    Sad that in this day and age, the “buyers beware” disclaimer is the best we can do.

    Jim Baran
    Value Stream Leadership

  2. Great read Michael.!!!

    Lean is all about changing people and culture. The machines do only what we design them to do. People don’t work that way. I like your statement “Have a plan for every person”.

    One of the things you alluded to was that when we create a lean culture, those people that don’t fit in become uncomfortable. They usually leave on their own. I have had this happen here where I work.

  3. Indeed an important question, Mark. In fact, in my experience from deploying Lean in over 300 locations within my company, the most important question prior to any Lean roll-out is: "Do we have the right people on the bus?" – And you usually intuitively know within just a few minutes when you don’t.

    Those situations are always very frustrating, because Lean is about fact based decision making and developing people, so you need to, as Michael also indicated, give the person a chance. Even though you know that with a ‘bad manager’ you get maybe 30% of the results and with a ‘good manager’ 120%.

    Now the good news is that Lean is also about visualizing performance. It helps you to step away from managing your business just on the overall P&L, by visualizing the improvement potential on a daily/hourly basis, in each area of the operation. In my experience, this is the ‘doing the homework’ that Michael is referring to in his last paragraph. And it will avoid firing ‘the good guy with the bad results’ and allow setting more challenging targets to ‘the bad guy with the good results’.

    I’m looking forward to reading The Lean Manager, hopefully there will be, like in The Goldmine, also a few bad people on the bus…


  4. First – "The Gold Mine" is one of a very select few books I 'force' upon all managers to read. It was written in a simple, easy-to-read manner that everyone can relate to. I have never had a manager come back with questions due to lack of understanding (I can't say the same for other Lean books we've had managers read).

    Second – I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of "The Lean Manager", which should be in my inbox today or tomorrow (isn't USPS tracking great!)

    Third – This is a fantastic question with a dynamic answer. I was immediately reminded of the analogy my sensei (from Toyota) used: foxes, rabbits and turtles. It is so difficult to keep those who "see the light" because they get frustrated by the slowness of the cultural change (including us mentors). That difficulty is compounded by the effort required to convert foxes into turtles and develop turtles at their slow pace.

    Over the years, I've seen a number of people choose new careers or retirement because they simply couldn't handle the changes taking place around them. Yet, I've seen foxes, with the proper motivation from their superiors (both locally and from 'corporate offices') make amazing turn-arounds.

    This confirms that a CLEAR and DEFINITIVE direction from the HIGHEST levels ABSOLUTELY MUST lead the change. Simply saying "we're going to do Lean" is not a clear and definitive direction…


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