A Sad Story About “Lean” That Wasn’t Really Lean Management At All
In March, I wrote a post titled “Is it Lean's Fault or the Old Management System's?” about how people's complains about Lean are actually often complaints about old management mindsets.
Unfortunately, what's described as “Lean” in an organization is sometimes not a transformation in management thinking… in those cases, it's really just a few new tools (like 5S) layered on top of old philosophies and the old management system.
As Toyota's Jamie Bonini teaches us, Lean is supposed to be about tools, philosophy, and management systems – and that all leads to a new culture.
If it's just new tools and the same old mindsets, I'd call that L.A.M.E. – or Lean As Misguidedly Executed. An example of new tools and old thinking is when people are bullied into following pointless “office 5S” rules (also illustrated in this video I made).
These old mindsets and behaviors that people rightfully complain about include:
- Top-down decision making forced on others
- Bullying people
- Blaming individuals instead of looking at the process
- Laying off people in response to financial pressures
After some good discussion, the post later attracted a comment from Rebecca, which I'll share below:
I worked in a clinical laboratory of a hospital where a senior administrator started touting the benefits of LEAN. I had never heard of LEAN and I started researching. I became such a believer I took an 8 week Green Belt course and invested a lot of time educating myself on LEAN.
I knew it would take time and given that this was not a facility wide LEAN initiative, it would have limited application but still I forged ahead. My department director had an authoritarian leadership style and I stressed that the management style required for LEAN was very different. To put it bluntly he was totally incapable of change. He would “lecture” staff that they would need to adapt to the coming changes. But he changed nothing.
I suggested we start Huddles which he turned into “Nazi style stand up meetings”. He came to huddles with a sign-up sheet, agenda and a lot of finger wagging. I was sorry I ever made the suggestion. I tried to explain that huddles should be a positive start of the day.
The senior administrator stood in front of the entire staff stating “this is not the flavor of the month – we are committed to LEAN”. Well that lasted for 4 months – she moved on to other flavors. In the end LEAN got a undeserved bad name. I made sure to explain that what we were doing was NOT LEAN. I ended up leaving the job disgusted and bitter. The sad part is that the staff members “got it”. Many were on board and enthusiastic. It was leadership that did not “get it” and dropped the ball.
I learned my lesson but I still believe in LEAN but now understand that it absolutely must start at the top.
I'm glad that Rebecca educated herself to learn the difference between Lean and what was being practiced in her organization. I realize there might be two sides to the story, but what Rebecca reports sounds like a believable situation where leaders thought Lean was just about tools and not about a new way of leading.
Being an authoritarian is not Lean. Lecturing staff and labeling them as being “resistant to change” is not Lean. Using huddles as a forum for yelling and blaming is not Lean.
I replied to Rebecca:
Rebecca – Thanks for sharing your story. I'm really sorry to hear about that. I wonder if the lab director or any of your senior leaders did ANYTHING to educate themselves about Lean. Did they get any education through a class? Did they read my Lean Hospitals book? Did they read the free chapter 1, even? Did they even read a good article from a lab journal about Lean management?
Education doesn't necessarily lead to changed mindsets. Sometimes a little bit of education is dangerous because leaders leap to the conclusion of “Oh, this Lean stuff is simple” then they go about bullying people into using tools, which is, of course, not the point.
I hope you've been able to move on to another organization where they do “get it” and they're willing to work on changing management mindsets.
And she wrote back once more:
The senior administrator had previously worked at a LEAN hospital (I forget which one). Two years prior the Emergency Department of the hospital had a consultant come and she and my director attended a week long education Kaizen event. I also did three 1-hour presentations to staff that they also attended so they did have the background.
The senior administrator has a tendency to micro manage and would get involved in various improvement projects only to move on to stamp out a fire somewhere else. It left people frustrated and the sentiment of “this wont last” was deeply entrenched. I don't think she saw her role in the ever growing lack of involvement among staff members.
The senior admin also asked me to do a LEAN project for the pharmacy department. That was a disaster. She was all over the map with problems and it became clear very quickly there was a political war being waged between managers which prevented any process improvement.
In the end I managed to get some processes improved but it was difficult because the senior admin would constantly shift the direction of the project. She would pop in on Kaizens and completely de rail the process. I tried to do some LEAN training but she kept telling me there was no time for it. I later found out she thought I spent too much time emphasizing LEAN terminology and not getting “people” to change their ways. She never told me about her concerns about LEAN speak. I am not sure how you do 5 S without explaining what 5S stands for??
In addition to all of this I had no authority which also complicated matters.
It's unfortunate that her senior management assigned projects, but didn't manage differently.
What can we do to avoid situations like this?