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A Deep Dive of Lean

An “inch-wide, mile-deep” approach in small areas builds a lean culture out of every person, every day, by providing focus and a disproportionate amount of support.

How do you transform a 50,000-person, or even a 1,000-person organization? As I’ve written often, you do it one heart and one mind at a time. But that requires a strategy.

Twenty-three years ago while building the Chrysler Operating System, we engaged tiny pockets of the organization in a strategy called the “Lean Learning Line.” This strategy is also called “model areas,” “learning laboratories,” “deep dives,” and I’ve often called them “inch-wide, mile-deep.” There is no single right name. However, given the strategy’s relative success compared to massive training and kaizen-blitz rollouts, it is still surprisingly underutilized.

What is it? This approach is about building a lean culture of every person, every day; it’s about problem-solving and making improvements in small areas by providing focus and a disproportionate amount of support. The purpose is learning while making the team better, or better yet, learning how to make the team better.

My first effort with this strategy engaged 150 people over five months. We implemented over 900 separate improvements from those team members. We reduced downtime by 98%. We generated believers in everyone from the team members to the factory manager to the union representatives who watched over us closely. We generated standards. We built capability.

What is it not? Don’t call it a pilot. The reason is that most pilots are used to determine if something works or not. If you treat this as a proof point, then you won’t have the patience and persistence to fight your way through problems along the way.

It’s also not a project. Projects have a defined end. If you focus on just accomplishing a result instead of building capability, then you won’t build anything sustainable. Results still matter, but they are an outcome and not the purpose of a model area.

How do you select your area? There is no magic formula. A balance must be struck in regard to the size or boundaries. Too small and it’s not relevant. It should be challenging. If you don’t have anything to overcome, you won’t learn anything through challenge. One group I saw simply 5S’d their office supplies closet. It was well done, with visual management, 5S and standard work. But people couldn’t learn from the example because they couldn’t relate to it.

Too big, and you will struggle to gain any traction at all. Too big likely depends on the size of your organization. If you have a 30-person company, then a 20-person deep dive is a lot. When I was in a 5,000-person factory, we engaged a 150-person team across three shifts. While it seemed like a lot, it also felt very small compared to the site. It was significant enough, however, for people to relate to, and lead to expansion.

There are a lot of other criteria to consider. The most important ingredient is engaged leadership. If you select an area with the purpose of convincing that team’s leadership that this is worth pursuing, you will face resistance in every step. While this might not be about a leap of faith, it is a commitment, and you must have local leadership willing to work through the challenges.

Who is the customer? The team going through a transformation is the focal point, but they are not the customer. The rest of the company is the customer. If this were just about transforming the team at hand, then you would just repeat this strategy team by team. However, that is a very expensive and resource-intensive approach.

The key to success is to focus on what everyone else will get out of the effort. Best practices for teaching and applying lean should be developed and  be ready to share with others. Internal benchmarking allows people to see a working example. Leader immersion helps them experience the culture. Consider the outputs before you just charge ahead doing “lean stuff.”

In the next “Lessons from the Road,” we’ll talk about how to run a deep dive.

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