Somewhere along the way I learned the basic principle that you can always determine someone’s priorities in life by looking at how they spend their time. You can pretty well size up the man who has ten hours a week to play golf or go fishing with his buddies, but can’t squeeze an hour into his demanding schedule to see his daughter in the school play. It doesn’t take much in digging to figure out why your teenager is unemployed when he spends a half hour a day filling out a job application somewhere, then spends the rest of the day ‘hanging out’ with his friends. For the same reasons, it doesn’t take a lot of thinking to understand why most manufacturers are not lean. All you have to do is take a quick look at the head guy’s calendar.
One of the basic principles of writing for manufacturing management – whether it is this blog or the occasional article is that it has to be brief and simple if I want the execs to read it. 350 words or so is about all they have the time and attention to absorb. Five minutes available to learn in schedules packed with hours of meetings to pore over the numbers. I find that to be truly amazing, but it is very true. Quick, simple reads like "The Leadership Principles of Captain Kangaroo" are huge best sellers among the execs, while people lower down the pay scale are reading serious books – you know – books with numbers and other complicated things in them. Dr. Seuss went after the wrong market – he could have been a management guru.
This particular rant was brought about by a company president who recently gave me fifteen minutes to explain lean to him. I forwarded an article to someone in his organization describing a significant breakthrough a lean company had made, and the lean company was in similar circumstances to this one. The article bubbled up through the organization to the CEO, who called me and asked me to meet with him. The agenda he proposed was that we get together for a half hour. He would take the first fifteen minutes explaining the company’s situation to me, and I could have the last fifteen minutes to explain to him what lean was and how it can help. I turned down his generous offer to devote 3% of his workday to learning about lean. It would have been a colossal waste of fifteen minutes of my time.
(Book mark here – we have passed the exec time and attention limit. Managers curious to see how the story ends can resume reading tomorrow at this point)
Lean leadership is lacking in most companies because the senior people are woefully ignorant of lean. In the overwhelming majority of the companies I look into, the top people’s knowledge of lean is limited to a theory book or two, two page executive summaries of a couple of articles, and anecdotes from other execs heard at the bar of some resort following some executive conference somewhere – most often about how lean didn’t work for their company.
For that matter, many manufacturing company leaders are woefully ignorant of manufacturing. If anyone wants to know why so many companies are struggling all they have to do is tally up the number of hours senior management spent in meetings poring over and discussing financial data, and compare that to how many hours they spent in the factory. Looking back at last month, a lot of these people spent more time speaking at Kiwanis Club luncheons than they spent in their factories.
If transforming a company from traditional manufacturing management to lean were easy, everyone would have done it by now. If slashing inventories in half and costs by 20% or more could be had for as little as throwing a few bucks at a consultant and sending the front line folks off for a few days of training, GM and Ford would be just as lean as Toyota. If getting stunning quantum leap operating improvements could be delegated, why didn’t everyone simply delegate to someone long ago?
The key to becoming a competitive, lean manufacturer does not lie in leadership, vision statements, cultural transformations, ERP systems, paying for kaizen events, hiring Six Sigma black belts, or hiring me or any other consultant to go into the factory to make changes. The vital key to lean transformation is knowledge, and knowledge requires time and effort. "One Minute Managers" don’t become lean.
My advice to an executive who asks me how to begin the effort of becoming lean is pretty simple. Start by looking at your schedule and deciding what is really important to you. If you can’t free up as much time to work on manufacturing as you spend poring over the details of accounting and sales, then forget it. You will never become lean. On the other hand, if you are prepared to change your priorities and devote the time and attention needed to actually change your company, then start learning. Don’t launch any projects, don’t hire anyone – especially any consultants. Just start learning.
Take six months to read every lean book you can get your hands on – and not just the fluffy ones. Call the authors and ask hard questions. Go to conferences and seminars and be the irritating guy in the front row that won’t let a weak presenter off the hook. In short, put the time and mental effort into becoming the most knowledgeable lean person in the company. Once that happens, you’ll know what to do next.