In this week's edition of 5 Questions we meet Michael Balle.
1. Who are you, what organization are you with, and what are your
current lean-oriented activities?
I work as an independent consultant with my sensei (and father!) Freddy
Ballé. We help senior managers to implement lean cultures in their own
companies. In this respect, we see ourselves more as teachers than
consultants per se – we don't actually implement ourselves, but work with
people to make sense of the lean method in their specific circumstances.
Mostly, our work has three main aspects:
1. Shop floor visits with senior managers, to discuss the current situation
in the light of lean, clarify problems, help with setting up visual
management, and picking problems as "assignments" for the company to realize
on a monthly rhythm;
2. Establishing an internal learning mechanism, mostly a community of
practice of operations managers (plant mangers across a company, or the
management team in one site), to link budget-level results with shop floor
activity (mostly through key indicators and tool application).
3. We support the kaizen effort by coaching the a central lean officer and
his/her plant correspondents in using the lean tools rigorously so that
local supervision understand which problems they should focus on and how to
treat them in a lean way.
Our main focus is about both results and sustainability. In this sense,
every shop floor activity should deliver immediate results, as well as
contribute to the long-term goal of establishing a lean culture. There is a
natural tension between those two aims, which makes things interesting on
the shop floor – if not always comfortable! The key to results, usually, are
the involvement of people in the use of the tools, and the rigor with which
they use them. The key to sustainability is to have the people build the
tools themselves as their understanding deepens. One is often tempted to
"give" them the tools ready-made, in order to get quicker results.
Unfortunately, the "rubber-band" effect often happens, and if the people
haven't build the tool themselves they're often not sure of its purpose and
let things go as soon as the focus moves away.
In the end, we don't see lean programs as "implementing lean" (such as
building a structure), but more as "executive development" programs
(coaching a football team). It's far more demanding for management than
getting external (or internal) consultants to "do" lean to you, but also
more rewarding – and far more sustainable.
2. How, when, and why did you get introduced to lean and what fueled
and fuels the passion?
That's kind of a long and convoluted story. Freddy discovered Toyota in 1975
when he was head of Product Planning in Renault. Sales people started
worrying about Toyota presence in Africa, a market in which French
automakers were dominant. Freddy followed it up by going to visit Toyota's
factories, and developed an enduring passion for TPS. Later on, he became
Industrial VP at an automotive supplier and the CEO of another – in both
instances he implemented the full TPS as best he could, under the guidance
of Toyota's OMCD internal lean division.
In the early 1990s, when Freddy was implementing TPS within the supplier
group and I was doing research for my PhD dissertation on organizational
learning and mental models. I took his advice and went to see how Toyota's
consultants would coach a French plant in implementing TPS on one cell – and
fell off my chair. I still remember vividly how I realized they were DOING
organizational learning, but in ways completely unfamiliar and different to
any prescription in the field; This started my (so far) lifelong fascination
not so muc for TPS itself, but for TPS implementation, "transformation" so
to speak – and all the various translation attempts in company. Not the
least, the fact that companies keep trying to adapt the lean method to their
special case, and not infrequently, end up taking the core out of the tools.
The hardest part of TPS remains to solve the problems that it shows up, not
do the thing one wants to do.
We're very lucky inasmuch as we work directly with CEOs, division VPs or Ops
managers in implementing lean – I find it endlessly fascinating to see
entire companies face their profound problems and tackle them one by one
until their offering on the market improves – and they start solving the
very issues that bug you and I as customers. It's particularly fun in
non-automotive fields such as hospitals or construction and so on. One is
constantly amazed at how powerful the lean method is, how much a difference
it makes and how creative people are when they get their heads together to
solve problems. Amazing!
Oddly, the more I do this, the more I convince myself that the lean method
holds key answers beyond industrial applications. As I see things, many of
the problems facing us in the XXIst century centre around the basic fact
that we can't afford to be so wasteful in our approach to resources,
externalities, people and capital. Toyota's breakthrough show us a way to
both remain creative and innovative while tempering the harshest aspects of
"creative destruction" – I firmly believe that lean in the broader sense of
applying scientific thinking to industrial problems and a muda-free ideology
are essential to facing the upcoming global problems.
On the down side, our ability to teach lean remains extremely limited, and
every day on the shop floor is humbling in that respect. I fear that if we
don't find more effective ways of coaching and teaching lean and getting it
into the mainstream of management, we will pass a unique opportunity, and
find ourselves explaining to our kids that, yeah, we had a key to their
problems, but we simply couldn't get bothered to make it work. Beyond the
interest in the work, this is what keeps driving me to better understand how
implementation works and to search for the keys to transformation.
Unfortunately, many days I have to conclude I'm not that smart, and learning
from mistakes takes such a long time!
3. In your opinion what is the most powerful aspect of lean?
The most powerful thing in lean, in my opinion, has to be Genchi Genbutsu.
Going to see for yourself. As a cognitive sociologist, I was very aware of
the impact of context on local reasoning. Really improving things requires
wisdom, and, in a lighthearted way I could sum up years of research on
mental models in three equations:
DATA + CONTEXT = INFORMATION
INFORMATION + UNDERSTANDING = KNOWLEDGE
KNOWLEDGE + COMPASSION = WISDOM
The most powerful aspect of lean, to my mind, is the focus on facts, not
data – the refusal of considering data out of context of real place, real
products and real people. This opens up the human mind to completely
different alleys and leads to radically different behaviours.
The second most powerful things has to be the systematic problem solving. I
believe that, as human beings, we're natural problem-solvers, but we're also
satisficers: we're quite happy to take the first solution that makes the
problem go away and start worrying about something else. With lean, I was
1. visualize production
2. to reveal all problems at all times
3. to solve them one by one
4. To improve management policies
Doing this as a core management method leads to designing radically
different products and organizations as people construct new ways of
assembling, processing, designing and organizing as they go. Asking why, and
why and why beyond the point of discomfort remains one of the most
fascinating aspects of day to day lean work on the shop floor.
Thirdly, the "problems first" attitude is also incredibly powerful – the
fundamental attitude that every person's problem is legitimate and deserves
full attention, I find, changes many of the relationships at work. Teamwork,
in this respect, is about solving problems together – across functions and
across hierarchical levels. Creating an environment where bad news is okay,
and where execs are actually curious about problems and help their staff to
resolve them is an incredibly powerful cultural revolution in most
organizations. Clearly, when the people themselves have improved their own
processes, their commitment to their customers and their products is
4. In your opinion what is the most misunderstood or unrecognized
aspect of lean?
I wouldn't know how to answer this generally, but here are my three main
fights in implementation are 1) quality first, 2) pull systems and 3) people
People are often surprised because the first lean tool Freddy and I
introduce anywhere are the "red bins" – a place, or any device – to isolate
and highlight non-quality. This works equally well in administrative or
service work, it's just a matter of finding a clever way to see the
non-right-first time. As I understand it, quality in lean is TQC without the
paperwork. The first rule of kanban is "don't send defectives to the
subsequent process." So the first misunderstood or unrecognized aspect of
lean has to be its quality focus. There are far less papers and books on
Jidoka than on JIT, but I suspect that a large source of Toyota's
competitive advantage lies in their technical ability to confirm good
quality at every step of the process. In my experience, this is technical
know-how which is very hard to ace for most companies as things are simply
not set up that way (and the first fight is often with the quality
department – which doesn't help).
The second aspect of lean on which we tend to run in trouble is insisting on
pulling ASAP, rather than "when we're grown up". There are all sorts of
so-called "lean" arguments for not pulling: not enough stability, unclear
flows, too large batches, too complicated and so on. I actually used to
believe that and six or seven years ago disagreed with Freddy on the "pull
as fast as you can" tack – I believed management control and stability took
priority. I have now to accept (and confess) that the sites where they took
this stance never ended up pulling and their improvement activities keep
waxing and waning according to management energy. On the other hand, if we
commit to pulling right from the start, we can immediately start levelling,
clarifying value streams and reducing batch sizes – which starts "the river
and the rocks"; The pull system gives an architecture to kaizen, which
sustains further improvements. Every program I've seen that does kaizen
without pulling ends up exhausting itself.
As a cognitive sociologist, I first got hooked into lean by the notion of
"making people before making parts." As Freddy says it, lean is walking on
two feet: one step, continuous improvement, second step: people involvement.
If you just hop along on one foot, sooner or later, you fall flat on your
face. Yet, we have to realize and accept that most companies are better
equipped to deal with continuous improvement of processes and cells rather
than engaging their people in improvement. I find that I have to fight this
hard right from the start, insisting in being shown all the operator
suggestions that have effectively been implemented during the kaizen
workshops and so on. Some places pick it up faster than others, but it tends
to be an uphill fight. Managers in particular tend to find difficult
reconciling aggressive muda-hunting and the fact that operators are always
right about what they say about their work. Operators add the value. It is
essential that they be involved in how they do that, everywhere, all the
time. As people are developed to their full potential, they contribute
massively to the company.
5. In your opinion what is the biggest opportunity for lean in
today's world? How can that be accomplished?
Le me go out on a limb here. I'm progressively of the mind that the biggest
opportunity for lean today is its take on investment; No capex on existing
processes, as kaizen should maintain them as performing as well as if new,
so all the capital expenditure should go to new products, new technologies,
new ideas. Throwing money at problems not only increases operational cost,
but also leads management teams into very wasteful solutions. Waste-free
investment will inevitably become a core problem as the next generation of
managers are faced with resource and environmental challenges.
And, in the same perspective, living systems will, sooner or later, be
considered as capital and not income. The lean method is, as far as I can
tell, the only operational method to solve industrial environmental problems
on a case by case basis. I hear that Toyota plants are zero landfill –
considering what happens in the factories I know, I find this amazing – and
inspiring. I also drive a Prius. As industrialists, I beleive we need to be
militant about the environmental impact of what we do not just because it
makes sense in absolutes, but also because it's good business. Environmental
performance certainly gave an advantage to the Japanese automakers who had
to comply to tougher regulations sooner than the US.
My hope – realistic or not – is that we succeed in reaching a point where
every manager is intimately convinced that "managing means improving."
Keeping the pot boiling, keeping out trouble, nose clean, head down is
simply not enough – and somehow I hope that we can promote "kaizen spirit"
as a baseline. It's no more than a hope because difficulties are
considerable. Certainly, if goes against the "law of least mental effort" I
first formulated in my research on mental models: thinking hard is tiring
and going against the group's opinion is painful. Still, there is a special
kind of joy and satisfaction in seeing things improve over time. A sense of
accomplishment. I just hope we were better at sharing that around and
convincing others. Hopefully, lean will become the mainstream management
method of this brave new century, much like "managing by numbers" was the
mainstay of the second half of the previous one.