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Lean As A Habit

Lean As A Habit

Jan. 11, 2021
The fact that lean methods and practices are too often seen as “events” rather than “habits” is a common cause of program failure.

There’s a good bit of literature out there that reports on the high failure rates of large initiatives like a lean enterprise implementation. Do a websearch on “failure rate of lean implementation” and you’ll find articles that indicate between 50% and 95% of all lean initiatives fail. The latter percentage might be a bit high, but the question of why so many programs fail is prompted nonetheless. The answers to that question are legion, but I think the fact that lean methods and practices are too often seen as “events” rather than “habits” is a common cause of program failure. 

The literature on lean concepts is rife with language of “kaizen events” and “Six Sigma projects.”  The notion that lean is best implemented by episodic training classes and events sees organizations as being like machines that simply need “fixing”. We hope that we’ll be able to open up the hood, change the plugs, put in a new carburetor, slam the hood shut and everything will work just fine. It’s a very “engineering” way of looking at organizations, and the evidence shows that it just doesn’t work.

We can look at the approach that most manufacturing companies have taken with respect to workplace organization as an example. Over the months, the plant floor comes to look like an F5 tornado just hit and someone in a leadership position decides it’s time to “clean this mess up”. Out come the mops and brooms, overtime is scheduled, new paint is applied and the operations look good again ... for a few weeks.

Broad lean initiatives fail in precisely the same way. A burst of energy and action that provides temporary benefits before the plant slides back to mediocrity.

It’s no harder to be successful at lean than it is to lose weight or to give up smoking. Success at any of those ventures depends on changing daily routines and behaviors. It’s just that straightforward. And it’s just that difficult. It’s easy enough to schedule an intervention, or go to rehab, or conduct a kaizen. The hard part is permanently leaving behind the behaviors that got you where you are and building new habits that will get you where you want to go.

Several years ago, I worked with a plant in Georgia that worked to implement lean methods.  During one visit, the plant manager and I talked about workplace organization and some of the tools and methods that supported a successful program. During that discussion, I described shadow boards and their use. 

On the next visit a few weeks later, I walked into the plant manager’s office to hear him report that he’d taken my advice to experiment with shadow boards and that the experiment had failed.  I asked him to accompany me to the plant floor to show me the problem. Once on the floor, he pointed to a large, well-developed shadow board that was empty of tools.

“See?” said the plant manager.  “I had this board installed for them but they won’t use it."

I looked at the empty board, then turned to the plant manager and asked him, “Did you think the shadow board was going to walk around the plant and pick up the tools for you?” 

Noting his puzzled look, I continued, “The installation of a shadow board by itself has little value.  Here’s the way this works: For the next couple of weeks or so, you’re going to come out here at the end of the shift and look at the shadow board. If the tools aren’t all in place, you’re going to find the shift supervisor and ask, ‘Where the hell are my tools and why aren’t they up on the shadow board?’ The important part is that you’re going to do this every day. The shift supervisor will start going to his operators and telling them to put the tools back on the shadow board at the end of the shift because he’s tired of you busting his chops about it. When you see the tools have been put on the board at the end of the shift, you’ll go to the supervisor and tell him, ‘That’s just what I had in mind. Good work.’ “

I went on to tell the plant manager that, after a few weeks, he’d be able to reduce the frequency of his “audits” to several times a week, then to once a week, but to never let the frequency fall below one per week. Success, in this case, depended on the plant manager changing his behavior (develop a new habit) in ways that supported changes in behavior (new habits) on the part of his supervisors and operators. 

Circumstances prevented me from making further visits to that plant, but I can say with confidence that, if the plant manager developed and sustained a habit of checking the shadow board frequently, then it’s still there all these years later and still in use. If, on the other hand, he made a few visits to the shadow board, then fell out of the habit, the board stands empty today, a memorial to another “failed lean implementation.” 

It’s easy enough to say that successful lean depends on the development of good habits, but how does one actually go about it? Essentially, everyone, from the CEO on down, needs to answer the question, ‘What will I do differently, starting tomorrow and continuing every day/week, to help sustain the lean initiative?’” 

A recent, successful implementation of workplace organization within a Distribution Center here in Ohio will provide an illustration. Initially, the DC manager divided the center into several areas and gave individual material handlers responsibility for the upkeep of each area. Each material handler is tasked with carrying out a set of routine housekeeping tasks and checking them off at the end of the shift. The material handlers also conduct a weekly “self audit” of their areas and write in comments as to problems they’ve encountered.

DC leads check the task lists each shift.  The DC supervisor checks the task lists a few times a week and reviews the self-audits each week. Each week, the supervisor, the leads, and one or two material handlers review the self-audits and do a walk-through of one of the areas.  Note that I’ve listed eight habits that have been developed and sustained by various team members at the DC:

  1. Material handlers carry out routine housekeeping tasks each shift.
  2. Material handlers check off the task list after completing tasks each shift.
  3. Material handlers carry out a self audit of their areas each week.
  4. Leads check task lists for completion each shift.
  5. Leads review self audits each week.
  6. Supervisor checks task lists several times each week.
  7. Supervisor checks self-audits each week.
  8. Supervisor, leads, one or two of the material handlers walk through one area each week.

These habits are supported by several artifacts: shadow boards, posted daily task lists, self audit templates, posted maps of each area, and the implementation of visual management signals and cues. But those artifacts don’t do anything in and of themselves, just as the shadow board at the plant didn’t do anything. The new habits developed by everyone in the distribution center haven’t just sustained the gains made; they’ve lead to significant improvement of practices and procedures.

 Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance.

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