Lean Leaders -- Do You Understand the Apparent Contradictions of Lean?

Lean Leaders -- Do You Understand the Apparent Contradictions of Lean?

Standardization versus creativity typically is the first big “apparent contradiction” a lean leader has to deal with.

I have been openly critical of American management and leadership. In my last column, you read my thoughts on a new style of leadership I call lean leadership. It requires that leaders exhibit behaviors not always listed as the most important leadership/management skills in much of the literature and often not taught in the MBA programs of even the leading colleges and universities, and frequently not part of the management recognition and rewards programs in many companies.

One such skill is the ability to teach. I don’t just mean teach the theory but teach the theory as well as the application of the lean tools. In this regard, I often get questions about teaching some of the lean tools. However, these questions often expose a lack of understanding of the very nature of the lean tools.

In this column, I am going to address one such question that addresses the very nature of lean. It is: Aren’t some of these lean skills incompatible?

Contradictory or Not?

Some lean tools, when compared one to the other, appear to be contradictory or incompatible in nature. For example:

  • How do we standardize processes and yet teach our people to be creative? Standardization involves rote repetition; creativity involves continual change. They appear to be an “either-or” or mutually exclusive proposition.
  • What about the concept that we are striving for perfection yet we have a high tolerance for mistakes that naturally accompany the process of experimentation?
  • What about the biggest contradiction? All of our efforts are focused on driving out variation, yet we are to promote a culture of continuous improvement that at its core requires continual change. No variation, yet continuously change? That concept challenges us all at some point in time.

This is one of the great barriers to lean implementation: Concepts of lean are both counterintuitive and counter-cultural. Hence, if you wish to be a lean leader, you must go back to the basics and make sure you have a clear understanding before you are able to teach others.

That means you need to first understand how these concepts are not incompatible. In fact, they are more than compatible -- they also are complementary and synergistic. You need to go deeper than the commonplace definitions that are often culturally driven and not adequate to define the lean concepts.

Frequently this deeper understanding comes about through a paradigm shift. And when you understand the shift needed, it is much easier to both understand and teach these concepts.

Let’s go through one example to explain away the “seemingly incompatible” nature of these concepts and show how they are not only compatible but complementary as well.

Standardization Versus Creativity

Standardization versus creativity typically is the first big “apparent contradiction” a lean leader has to deal with. While his subordinates clearly understand each of these concepts in isolation, the question is, “How do we do both without becoming schizophrenic?”

Certainly, standardization and standard work are keystone elements to any lean initiative. And creativity is the heart and soul of the improvement process leading to continuous improvement, which is the most fundamental of lean principles. Yet on the surface, standardizing by getting folks to do the same thing in the same way hardly sounds like creativity. Conversely, creating and continually changing processes to find the best way and the best result sounds anything but standard. Both are needed, yet they on the surface they seem incompatible.

Is there some way of viewing these two concepts that unlocks the seeming incompatibility? Is there a dimension we can look at to find the necessary link to create a synergism where both can co-exist without contradiction?

Yes, there is. I believe the topic is excellence, specifically temporal excellence.

By standardizing -- by doing process steps in exactly the same way, thereby driving out the debilitating aspects of variation -- we create excellence in the present. In addition, through the processes of standardization and standard work, we create a present-day situation that will give us great assurance the improvements we have made will be sustained into the future.

Moreover, once a process is standardized and the variation driven to low levels, it is much easier to spot abnormalities and process-improvement ideas. Even without focusing on specific process changes, almost without exception, processes once standardized, will improve -- with no other external stimulus. This is the phenomenon of “improvement through repetition.” It is why football teams will practice the same play ad nauseum. Small elements of variation are driven out, and seemingly small and often unquantifiable technique improvements are achieved.

Standardization is a commonplace, accepted and a recognized practice for athletic teams yet frequently it is called “dehumanizing” when applied to the process industries.  Go figure.

On the other hand, creativity is the key to process improvements and process excellence in the future. Through the creative process, starting with observation, we can improve all processes by driving out wastes and improving on value-added time. Creativity is the lifeblood of the improvement process and is the key to our long-term success.

Incompatible – or Compatible, Complementary and Synergistic?

Standardization and creativity are incompatible only in that we cannot do both at the same time.

Once we recognize that they are two different activities, with two different short-term results, to be done at different times…… but that fit together in a long-term plan to assure continuous improvement, there is no incompatibility. Both concepts can easily -- in fact both concepts MUST -- coexist to create, nurture and perpetuate a culture of continuous improvement.

The standardization process allows us to:

  • define what the process “should be” doing. We call this the “normal state,” and hence we can now see when the process has deteriorated and can now define that as the “abnormal state.” This is one of the links to the creative process.
  • achieve excellence in the short term, through both the standardization process and the process of “improvement through repetition.”
  • minimize the deterioration of a process.

The creative process then can be used to:

  • problem solve when the “abnormal state” is made apparent.
  • work on the process when deterioration is noted, restoring the process to its original condition.
  • implement new ideas to make the process even more powerful and more robust.

As you can see, both the process of standardization and the creative process are compatible and complementary. How about synergistic? If that is not obvious yet, let me give you the famous quote of Taichi Ohno: “Where there is no standard, there can be no kaizen.”

Why is This So Difficult to Teach?

I have found that there are two problems in teaching these concepts.

  • First is the lack of understanding of the concepts that we have addressed;
  • Second, there is a commonly held belief that assembly line workers are doing these two things at the same time. Specifically, they are producing to takt, making 100% on spec product and meeting the shipping schedule. This is a highly exaggerated representation of reality. For the highly repetitive factory with workers producing to takt, there is seldom time in the operating cycle to produce the product yet execute process improvements at the same time. Most workers have their hands full keeping on-cycle. Once this myth is dispelled, all else falls in line. Workers need time to produce, and they need a separate time to get the creative juices flowing and come up with process improvements.

My experience has been that in mature lean facilities, workers often will observe and even analyze (to some degree) process improvements that can be made even while they are producing. This only can work with highly standardized processes; otherwise, there is no “normal” to use as a comparison. These workers, in an open environment, will have the opportunity to discuss their process-improvement ideas with their co-workers, the group leader and even the support staff. Frequently this informal process will create interest and often catalyzes others to action. In an open, healthy culture, these workers will have some mechanism, such as quality circles, to get their ideas formally cultivated.

In Conclusion

Teaching is a key behavior of the lean leader, and there is simply no substitute for being “lean competent.”

In addition, many lean concepts appear to be incompatible and hence hard to teach. But for each one, once understood, the contradictions and incompatibilities disappear, and a new picture emerges. Then these concepts are both much easier to execute and much easier to teach.

So, do you want to be a lean leader? A great start is to know your stuff and teach your stuff.

Lonnie Wilson has been teaching and implementing lean and other culture-changing techniques for 43 years. His book, "How To Implement Lean Manufacturing" was released in August 2009. Wilson is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. In addition to IndustryWeek, he has published articles in Quality Digest and was a frequent contributor to iSixSigma magazine. His manufacturing experience spans 20 years with Chevron, where he held a number of management positions. In 1990 he founded Quality Consultants,www.qc-ep.com, which teaches and applies lean and other culture-changing techniques to small entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 firms, principally in the United States, Mexico and Canada. In particular, he specializes in "lean revitalizations," assisting firms that have failed or failing lean implementations and want to "do it right." He is currently drafting his second book. Wilson recently retired from coaching youth soccer, a love he maintained for 31 years. Wilson lives in El Paso, Texas, with his wife, Roxana, and their son, Kevin. You can e-mail Lonnie at [email protected]or call him at 915-584-9228.

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