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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Guest Post: How would you explain Lean to an executive for the first time?

I recently posted this question on A Lean Journey LinkedIn Group:

If you had 2-3 hours to give an overview of what lean means for an executive where would you start and what would you say?

A friend and fellow Lean blogger David Kasprzak answered this question which is displayed here as a guest post:

David M. Kasprzak is the author and creator of the My Flexible Blog, where he shares his thoughts on improving workplace culture through the use of Lean concepts.  While working as an analyst to develop and analyze program-level cost & schedule metrics for the past 10 years, David has now turned his attention towards understanding the behaviors that create high-performing organizations.  He currently lives in Nashua, NH with his wife and 2 sons, and expects to finish his MBA degree in the summer of 2011.

Great question, Tim! Here's how I'd approach it:

No doubt, they have heard about lean as a cost-reducing tool, and are aware of Lean uses the terms "Waste" and "Value." What I would do, is introduce them to what these terms mean in a Lean context.

My Coffee Cup example:

What adds value to me? (I am willing to pay for a cup that):
• doesn't break
• Won't melt
• Doesn't leak
• Keeps coffee hot
• Has a handle
• Has an attractive color or picture
• Is safe (no sharp edges or toxic chemicals)

Things I am not paying for (they might be necessary to your business, but they add no value to me):
• Your accounting staff
• Your quality assurance inspectors
• The excess materials you throw out
• The time your workers spend waiting for broken machinery
• Your insurance and overhead costs
• Defective products you have to scrap or rework

When you get it "right," your company makes a fine coffee cup, so customers are happy. Unfortunately, not every cup you make can be sold because of defects and they don't always get to the customer on time. Plus, overhead costs are really eating into your margins.

On the other hand, if you could make a fine coffee cup and deliver it on time, every time, and OPTIMIZE your administrative functions so that they produced as little waste and added as much value as possible, what would happen?

• Margins would grow due to reductions in non-value-producing costs, PLUS
• Increased orders due to product quality & on-time delivery, PLUS
• Improved uses of Human Capital from employees working on fewer and fewer annoying and frustrating tasks become more engaged, PLUS
• Greater ability to innovate, compete & stay afloat during market downturns

Lean has many tools and methods for making this happen. One of these, that is applicable in both the factory and the office, is the concept of Single Piece Flow. (I'd then go on and demonstrate the time savings using any of the other simple games for introducing Lean that have been developed).

Lean transformations are about changing your organization's culture. I say Lean transformation, rather than implementation, because implementation tends to lead people to believe that becoming Lean is as simple as purchasing a box full of tools and then using them. While that is a part of Lean, it is similar to saying that buying a telescope makes you an astrophysicist.

Changing culture will require adopting new ways of thinking about work. As an example, try this exercise:

Place 16 red, 12 blue and 8 yellow poker ships (36 in total) on a piece of paper. It can be as complex or simple as you like, as long as you use all the chips. Then, develop instructions such that anyone, including someone who has never seen the finished product before, can reproduce the layout quickly and with no mistakes.

(I'd give the people 15 minutes or so to take this on. At the end of it, I'd show them my solution: A plain piece of paper with Red, Blue and Yellow circles on a 6X6 grid, and the words: "Make it Look Like This" written on the top.)

Lean is not about how much detail you can inject into a process in order to control people's behavior. It is about tapping into their native, natural abilities to explore, create and achieve. As you transform your culture, you will find people at all levels looking for ways to reduce stress and inefficiency. This will include helping each other overcome problems and collaborating in teams. It will also require breaking down barriers to communication, learning new ways to manage, and creating different forms of leadership.

As part of your Lean transformation, you will discover how to initiate engagement by removing the obstacles that are prohibiting it from forming naturally. As you remove those obstacles, you will find continuous, increasing improvement in pursuit of all your people, profit, and planet motives.

How would you answer this question?  What would you say to someone about Lean?

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  1. Excellent post! This is a great introduction to Lean. The poker chip illustration is great too.


  2. Thanks for this post! Exactly what I was searching for:)

  3. Many thanks to Tim for posting my thoughts on his blog!

    Chris and Janar, I am very glad you enjoyed my thoughts on this subject. If you'd like to see the origins of the poker chip instructions demo, see this post from my blog: