Leadership drives Lean

by Glen Miller
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Leadership is an important and necessary ingredient for Lean implementation. Unfortunately, executives and general managers sometimes fall short in leading the way. Often executives and general managers lack the follow-up needed for Lean to work.

Sometimes Lean deployment starts with fanfare and an executive demonstrating leadership by going out into the plant. When Lean gets a really good start, the executive describes why cost reduction is necessary. He or she then goes into the plant and iterates the need for production workers and supervisors to implement Lean principles and tools. He or she continues for awhile to motivate supervisors and managers to implement Lean tools and improve productive work habits and routines.

The pre-mentioned executive actions do occur and they are important. Rarely does the attention and enthusiasm continue. After a couple of weeks of demonstrated leadership, the executives stop attending Lean meetings and are rarely or ever seen in the plant. This lack of follow up is the Achilles heel of Lean deployment.

Sorting leadership from management
First, let’s consider what differentiates leadership from management. Managers’ work consists of measuring and controlling systems and workforce schedules. Their activities often consist of time in meetings, reading and publishing reports. It is not far-fetched to assume many managers or executives in management rarely go out on the shop floor. In contrast to management is leadership. A leader does not assume he or she knows what is really going on in operations. He or she goes tends problem-solving meetings and motivates supervisors and others to take the next step.

Second, the executive leader finds other enthusiastic leaders within the ranks to champion the changes in behavior that are needed for Lean to become continuous. Champions are the key to continuous implementation and success. The most knowledgeable thinkers and writers in the area of organizational change agree process improvement requires change and change requires leadership. I have witnessed this work. In several meat-processing plants, a supervisor has become a true champion of Lean. He believes it works and he then supports the behaviors that help Lean practices reduce waste.

This, however, is not an accident or by chance. When it works; the executive leader determines that a supervisor is willing to learn and apply new concepts and behaviors. The executive leader picks the supervisor with the potential to make change happen on the line. Moreover, the supervisor selected has some skill in communicating and teaching others to apply the new concepts.

Third, the executive leader is key in sponsoring the celebration of small wins. By small wins I mean those on line one or perhaps line two. When Lean is initially deployed, it takes a few days to determine a reduction in rework, waste or time. Often the first attempt at reducing waste only creates another problem. Eventually, however, the application of Lean tools and principles create some time or direct cost reductions.

The easiest to measure is rework. Many lines have rates of 20 percent, 25 percent or 30 percent rework. No one knows the rate of rework unless managers and accountants compare packaging materials in to packaging materials out on a regular basis. The line supervisor, however, can take simple daily measures. Perhaps they can start with counting trays used vs. the number of trays put out into cases that day. If trays were put through the line but did not get into a shipping box, then they were wasted. After several days, the line supervisor can come up with a baseline of trays wasted. Thereafter, the supervisor can determine if Lean tools, such as 5S or error proofing, have changed the rework percentage. If so, and it usually does, the reduction of rework is a small win. This small win will take awhile to show up as savings on the bottom line. Therefore, the executive leader should recognize progress and help the supervisor communicate and celebrate the small win.

Perhaps a simple acknowledgement can be placed in the cafeteria or a note sent to the supervisor. Visible metrics also help support small wins and help motivate supervisors and workers towards further implementation of Lean.

Four, the executive leader monitors the return on investment of Lean deployment. The leadership role is to help in the design of Lean metrics and then use those metrics in executive meetings and decisions. I recommend that a meat processor starts out with three Lean metrics. Yield, start-up duration and rework are my favorites.

Measuring outcomes
I grant that sometimes it takes several months to actually see the effects of Lean on the bottom line. However, monetary outcomes can and should be measured. These initial outcomes are indicators of savings yet to come and leadership, particularly executive leadership, should communicate this savings to other decision-makers. If Lean savings are demonstrated in the front office, Lean deployment has a much better chance of becoming “the way we do meat processing around here.”

Glen Miller is Senior Lean Consultant with Performance Essentials Inc. (www.performanceessentials.com).
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