Floor Tape Store

Monday, January 4, 2010

Ten New Years Resolutions for Lean Managers

Note: The following article is reprinted with permission from the author Patricia Wardwell and distributed by GBMP (Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership). 

Lean thinking brings about many changes in the way companies do business and operate processes.  New ways of defining customers, value, total cost and measuring elapsed time for fulfilling customer needs are just the beginning.  Everything from the redefinition of what constitutes "work" to breaking away from batch and queue mentality requires a paradigm shift, and employees are expected to support these changes, abandoning old ways of thinking and acting in new ways that may not always be intuitive or comfortable in the beginning. 

However, have you ever stopped to think about the essential changes that managers in a lean organization need to make to their own processes and styles in order to pave the way for change and accelerate the paradigm shifts?   This list offers some suggestions on how managers can commit to changing the way they work in order to help themselves and others adapt to and embrace the changes that are necessary in any successful lean implementation. 

As we head into a new year, I have chosen to put these thoughts in the form of manager "resolutions", with the hope that those who read this article will make a personal pledge to "practice" them in 2010.  Some of them will take a portion of you out of your comfort zone and that is a good thing!  Some will perhaps strike you as too time consuming and you will ask yourself "where will I find time on top of all the other things I have to do?"  The simple answer is you have to make the time.  Striking a balance between daily work and improvement is a critical responsibility of any manager who is going to support and lead lean in a meaningful way.  In fact that leads us to your first resolution!

1.      Set aside time each week to actively and openly nurture the lean journey in your organization. You must understand that one of your most important jobs as a lean manager is to develop and nurture other lean thinkers and to do this you must be engaged with them on a regular basis and be willing to put a high priority on improvement activities for yourself and others.    

2.      Get out of your office and walk the value stream at least once per week.  There is no better way to experience the flow of value (or lack thereof) than taking the same journey that an order, new product, patient or other takes through your processes.  Start where the order, product or person enters your value stream and "go see" all the places they go from start to finish. Look for all forms of the 7 wastes^ and when you see them, think about "why" they exist.  Do this often in order to gain a true understanding of your processes.  What happens on Monday is not necessarily what happens on Friday. See if you can discover why on your Gemba walks.  

3.      Resolve to use your eyes and ears more than your vocal chords when on the shop floor.  Shigeo Shingo noted that improvements come from the "common sense and experience of the people who do the work".  You need to look and listen to what the many intelligent, creative people who make your business run have to say about what goes on in their world each day.  If you don't do this regularly how will you have a prayer of knowing how to support their improvement efforts or gain their trust and commitment to change for the long haul?  

4.      Ask 5 different people who work for you "what can be improved" at least once a week.   This may sound like a simple one but if you ask, you must also be prepared to offer support and provide time and resources to allow them to make the improvements they suggest.  If you do so, you will very likely see your improvement efforts bloom!  If they see you are truly interested in their ideas and are willing to allow them the time and materials needed to change the small things that bug them regularly, you will be surprised how muchthis will mean to them. And your business will benefit at the same time.   

5.      Participate in an improvement project team meeting, training session or kaizen event at least once per month.  Be a visible, active participant in lean training and improvement efforts.  If a manager makes time to participate or attend, it sends the message to employees that the activity is important.  The opposite is also true. 

6.      Ask to be shown an implemented improvement idea from all areas reporting to you at least once per month.  Recognition is an important component of all good lean programs.  When you take the time to "go see" some of the ideas that people have implemented and, better yet, thank them in person for a job well done, you are recognizing and reinforcing desired behaviors. You'll also get an important opportunity to learn more about both your employees and your processes.   And when you ask to see improvements you are also setting the expectation that there will be some!

7.      Read at least one new lean article or book a month.  Lean managers recognize that learning is a life-long endeavor that needs to become as natural to employees as breathing.  The idea behind reading on lean subjects is to become a sponge, soaking up what others who have been on the journey longer than you have learned, and then think hard about how you and your organization can use this knowledge. Don't be surprised if you begin to accumulate your own lean library very quickly once you commit to becoming a reader!

8.      Attend a conference, plant tour or participate in a webinar or podcast on lean topics once per quarter.  Better yet, take a few people along for the ride when you participate in these activities.  Networking, benchmarking, and seeing and hearing about experiences of other companies and people are not only desirable but are expected in the world of lean practitioners.  When a team of people from your company participates together you instantly increase the likelihood that the learning will be more widely shared upon your return and you create a unique way to foster team work and stimulate lean dialogue.  

9.      Vow to visit at least one external customer or supplier each quarter.  The value stream does not stop at your four walls.  Instead it extends both to your suppliers on the one end of the value chain and to the customers who pay the bills on the other end.  The more you know and understand about these key stakeholders, and vice versa, the greater the chances that you can improve your extended value stream.  

10.  Develop your own "Manager's Standardized Work".   How many of you have a written routine that you follow as you go about your daily work?  I imagine if I asked you to list what you do, you would be able to list many things that have to get done in the course of the day, week or month.But nary a one of you would be able to say with great confidence that the order and time required to carry out those activities is entirely repeatable or predictable.  Why not formalize your list and establish your own set of manager's standardized work?  It will help you and the people who work for you more than you know. Write down, in the sequence you will follow, indicating how much time will be devoted to each task and when it will be done each day, the repeatable activities you will undertake on a daily basis, a weekly basis and so forth. It is ok to reserve times for the "unknown" things that invariably come up.  After a few weeks of practice you will have a pretty good sense of how much time you need to hold aside for these activities.  How much more productive and efficient would you and others be if a large majority of your routine tasks were planned and scheduled out on a regular basis?  Once you write it, make the list visual by placing a copy on your desktop, your door, and circulating it to people who work for you. Want to know what I will be doing at 9:00 am on Monday mornings?  Just look at my standardized work.  Am I open for a potential meeting at 2 pm on Thursday, just look at my standardized work.  If a manager can commit to creating and following standardized work, what message does this send to the rest of the organization about its importance? 

These resolutions are intentionally designed to cover activity changes that are in the direct control of most managers.  Therefore there should be few excuses that you can't carry them out because someone won't let you.  Yes, I realize that managers are people too, and may find change hard, but I sincerely encourage you to give them a try. The rewards will far outweigh the risks or sacrifices if you put them into practice.The behaviors you model if you enact these resolutions will demonstrate a personal commitment to lean and a tenacious respect for people, two of the most fundamental characteristics of a strong lean leader - which you are going to become in 2010, right? 

--Pat Wardwell, COO
Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership

Pat is the Chief Operating Officer for GBMP, Shingo Prize Recipient, SME Lean GOLD Certified Examiner and Chair of the National Lean Certification Oversight and Appeals Committee. GBMP is a not-for-profit organization based at the University of Massachusetts Boston campus working with companies all over the world. They are your one-stop resource for Continuous Improvement education and facilitation. View a video about GBMP's approach and philosophy toward continuous improvement and lean training.


  1. Great tips, thanks for sharing Pat's advice. Unfortunately, it's a very rare breed of manager or leader who acts that way in today's current state, especially so in healthcare.

    I wonder what Pat's response would be to the inevitable complain, "But I don't have time to do all that"???

  2. Tim,

    Excellent list. Looks like a formula for success in the lean world.