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Two Basic Beliefs that Make Lean Succeed

Cover art for podcast.
Relates Henry Ford's theories for creating a fully engaged work force and how Toyota successfully practices them when others find it difficult.
Over 65% of attempts to implement Lean manufacturing fail and they typically fail because the organizations leaders fail to recognize that Lean manufacturing is about beliefs much more than it is about tools. The two key beliefs upon which Lean depends are that: 1) all work processes are imperfect, and 2) the best way to improve work processes is to tap the knowledge and creativity of line workers. This podcast examines the operational implications of these beliefs.
Duration: 11:09 Audio MP3
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In the early 1990s, the John Deere Company decided to implement Lean manufacturing processes. They appeared to do all the right things. They conducted training programs. They met with the UAW leadership to make sure they supported the effort. After about a year, however, it appeared that little progress had been made and an investigation was conducted to find out what the problem was. What did they find? Incredibly, they found that supervisors and middle managers would leave their World Class Manufacturing training programs, apparently in full support of them, and go back to their work areas and say to the workers, "no, no, we are doing it the way we've always done it." To get implementation back on track, Deere eliminated two levels of management on their organizational chart and, in some cases, made UAW members team leaders to fill in for the missing supervisors.

Why did this happen and how common is it? It happened because many of Deere's managers and supervisors didn't accept two of the basic beliefs upon which Lean processes are based. They didn't believe that the line workers who they told to "keep doing things the way we've always done them" really could come up with better ways of doing things. They also didn't believe that, rather than just "keeping things going," their prime responsibility was to come up with better ways of doing things.

How common was Deere's experience? Very common. It's the reason why a large percentage of attempts to implement Lean manufacturing processes fail. Responding to the need to help companies develop a cadre of supervisors and managers who understand and accept the core beliefs upon which Lean manufacturing is based and know how to act upon these beliefs, St. Louis Community College has developed a "Lean Leadership Certificate Program." I'll be saying more about this valuable resource in a later podcast.

Here's something that all organizations intending to implement Lean processes need to remember and discuss, either early on in the implementation process or, preferably, before the implementation of Lean processes begins:

Lean is more about what people believe than what people do. Far too often this vital issue is not understood even though the negative impact of not understanding it is far reaching, well documented and has very expensive consequences. As Fujio Chou, former President of Toyota Motor Corporation, observed, "Many good American companies have respect for individuals, and practice Kaizen and other Toyota Production System tools. But what is important is having all the elements together as a system. It must be practiced every day in a very consistent manner - not in spurts - in a concrete way on the shop floor." He added, "Americans grab tools. At Toyota we concentrate on a philosophy."

Clearly, it takes beliefs to make these tools work.

So what are the beliefs that are at the core of the Lean philosophy? There are two that are absolutely crucial, these being:

  • First, regarding work processes: They are all imperfect.
  • Second, regarding workers: The people best qualified to improve work processes are the people who do the work.

Let's consider some of the operational implications of these two beliefs.

First, all work processes are imperfect.

When this is believed, continually searching for ways to improve these work processes becomes the first order of business. Let me share two stories about Toyota that really illustrate how folks behave when they believe that all work processes are imperfect. The first is a story about a Toyota plant manager who noticed on a walk through the plant that the standardized work instructions in one area hadn't been changed for six months. He asked the supervisor in the area, "Why am I paying you a salary?" What was the point of this question? Simply this: That the supervisor's prime responsibility wasn't just keeping production going. The supervisor's prime responsibility was improving work processes ... continually ... and if this hadn't been done for six months, that meant that continuous improvement, a key component of Lean, wasn't happening. This supervisor wasn't earning his salary.

The second story is about a young MBA graduate, let's call him Dave, who came to work at Toyota's Georgetown, KY, plant in the late 80s. While participating in his staff meeting, and when asked to comment on his area, started reciting all the good things that were happening. The plant manager, later to become the CEO of Toyota, stopped him in mid-sentence and said, "Dave, I know you're intelligent and I believe you're a hard worker but from now on at our staff meetings, I only want to hear about the mistakes you and your team made. And I'm going to tell you about my mistakes. Working together, we're going to figure out how to eliminate these mistakes." Dave said years later that it was at this moment that he realized what Lean manufacturing was all about: The relentless pursuit of perfection, fueled by an understanding that it was only through the continuing identification of problems that process improvements could be made.

In his book about the Toyota management system, Managing to Learn, John Shook quotes a Ms. Newton who works at Toyota's North American headquarters in Erlanger, KY, who said, "For Americans and anyone, it can be quite a shock to the system to actually be expected to make problems visible. Other corporate environments tend to hide problems from bosses."

Looked at objectively, it seems obvious that hidden problems can't morph magically into solved problems. Even though this is obvious, it's amazing how many organizations act as if problems that aren't obvious, don't exist. Given that we have to identify problems in order to solve them, the next question is, who is going to come up with solutions to the problems that are identified? Here's Lean's answer to this question and the second key belief of Lean.

Line workers are our most valuable source of the knowledge and creativity needed to improve work processes.

About a year ago, a line worker in a plant in which I was doing consulting stopped me in their cafeteria and said, "George, I want to tell you a story. Last week, I we were having a problem with some equipment in my area and the plant manager came out with some recommendations about how to solve the problem. After listening to him, I realized that there were some problems with his solution and mentioned them to him. He turned to me and said, ‘Just do what I'm telling you to do. I don't pay you to think. I pay you to work.' "He added, "What do you think about that?" I told him that it sounded like the plant manager was having a bad day. Well, maybe so. It's also clear that this plant manager didn't hold strongly to the belief that his line workers, more than anyone else in the plant, knew how to improve work processes. If he did believe this, he wouldn't have said "I don't pay you to think" to the worker. One thing we know for sure and that is that line workers, given the opportunity, will become active and enthusiastic contributors to the improvement of work processes. Often, they are not given this opportunity.

About seven years ago, a member of a 5S team with whom I was working came up to me after a planning session and said to me with tears in his eyes that it was in this meeting that for the first time in twenty-five years of working in this plant that anyone ever asked him what he thought. What an absolute tragedy for this individual and what an absolute waste for this company.

Toyota doesn't get the thousands of process improvement suggestions that it gets yearly from workers in its Georgetown, KY, plant with smoke and mirrors. It gets them by having managers and supervisors who on a continuous, non-stop basis, act out their belief in the knowledge and creativity of line workers by asking these workers the simple and incredibly powerful question, "What do you think?" What a powerful question and how seldom it is asked: "What do you think?"

The fourth in our series of Lean podcasts will address the question: "Why should an organization not implement Lean?" As I've mentioned in earlier podcasts, I'd very much appreciate the opportunity to discuss Lean with you. Please call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let's talk about it. Have a good day!