Monday, October 28, 2019

Recap From the 15th Annual Northeast Lean Conference - Total Employee Involvement

Learn more about NE Lean Conference below

This past week I was able to spend a wonderful time at the 15th Annual Northeast Lean Conference. I always look forward to these opportunities to connect with friends, learn best practices from others, and get re-energized around continuous improvement.

The theme of this conference is one that everyone relates to and tries to create in the Lean community “Total Employee Involvement”. I want a share a couple of key takeaways and thoughts from interesting presentations during this conference.

Jamie Bonini from TSSC talked about the lessons learned from 25 years of spreading, teaching, and implementing The Toyota Production System (TPS or Lean) outside of Toyota:
  1. Be Clear: TPS is an organizational culture of highly engaged people solving problems to drive performance. The philosophy underlies the technical tools that require the managerial role to build and sustain the TPS culture.
  2. Model lines: Learn by doing by building the culture through model lines to 1) develop leaders to then guide spreading where, how, and who and 2) expose real challenges to address in spreading.
  3. TPS must be an organization (not operations) strategy with strong leadership.
  4. Build a strong, small, full time, internal TPS team to support spreading.
  5. Company values must fit the TPS philosophy (the 4 points).
  6. TPS is difficult. Expect successes and setbacks. Learn mostly by doing.
  7. Stability is a must. If low, build it first and practice problem solving.
  8. Main challenge: Building the managerial role, behaviors, and problem solving.

Alan Robinson, UMASS Professor, took on the task of answering whether Lean is still relevant in a post-industrial economy. Lean has made significant contributions in manufacturing, entrepreneurships (The Lean Startup), Software development (Agile), Project management (Scrum), Agriculture (Lean Farm). However, Lean has not readily caught on in Healthcare, Education, Government, Military, and Financial Services. There are a couple reasons for this: 1) Lean pushes us to dramatically raise the quality of our leadership, thinking, problem-solving, and problem-finding 2) It is one thing to know what full-blown lean looks like but completely different to know how to make it happen in ordinary organizations. Shingo Institute reports that less than 4% of CEOs are serious about lean. As leaders we need to understand that we don’t have all the answers, actually, much less than that. Taiichi Ohno said “Even the best managers are wrong 50% of the time.” Shingo tells us the real driver for TPS is made by significant front-line engagement, “The goal of TPS is to unleash mass creativity.” This requires humility from leaders, Lean is not for you if you have to be the smartest person in the room. Most of an organization’s improvement potential lies in front-line ideas. Roughly 80 percent of an organization’s performance improvement potential lies in front-line ideas, and 20 percent in management-driven initiatives. Our mainstream management tools do not allow us to see the waste.

Lean is a proven methodology for striving for operational excellence, but:
As it works on human beings’ weakest points, it will seem hard to do, without a lot of deep education and discipline; and its real power is not unleashed with full involvement of the front-lines, which given our history is perhaps the hardest thing of all to do.

Marianna Magnusdottir, Chief Happiness Officer (great title) at Manino had powerful presentation about the human side of improvement. Companies who are tools focused and not people focused are often fraught with failure. As many of us know successful lean implementations are 80% people development and 20% tools learning. Using the analogy of rowing a boat where one oar is relationships and one is results in the wavy sea of reality. If you focus only on processes and results you can go in circles. If you only focus on people development you too will find yourself rowing in circles. However, if you are rowing both oars (relationships and results) you navigate through the waves (ups and downs) of business and transform your organization. Your daily management process should include elements of process/results and relationships/people. These should be daily communication boards that build trust and mutual respect by getting to know and learning from each other.

I had the chance to talk about using daily management to engage employees in the gemba. Lean organizations make use of Daily Management systems, a structured process to focus employee’s actions to continuously improve their day-to-day work. Daily Management empowers employees to identify potential process concerns, recommend potential solutions, and learn by implementing process changes. Daily Management, if done right, can be a critical tool in any organization’s toolbox to engage frontline staff in problem-solving and to deliver customer value.

Art Smalley ended the conference with a presentation on the 4 Types of Problems, a book he recently wrote. If you’re in business then it is inevitable there are problems that need to be solved. Not all problems are the same and can’t be solved the same old way. He demonstratesdthat most business problems fall into four main categories, each requiring different thought processes, improvement methods, and management cadences:

Type 1: Troubleshooting - A reactive process of rapidly fixing abnormal conditions by returning things to immediately known standards.
Type 2: Gap-from-standard - A structured problem-solving process that aims more at the root cause through problem definition, goal setting, analysis, countermeasure implementation, checks, standards, and follow-up activities.
Type 3: Target-state - Continuous improvement (kaizen) that goes beyond existing levels of performance to achieve new and better standards or conditions.
Type 4: Open-ended and Innovation - Unrestricted pursuit through creativity and synthesis of a vision or ideal condition that entail radical improvements and unexpected products, processes, systems, or value for the customer beyond current levels. 

As Art beautifully said “Not Every Problem Is a “Nail” But Companies Typically Reach for the Same Old “Hammer”.”


There were a number of great presentations from many great practitioners of Lean. I am already looking forward to next year’s conference which will be around the theme “Lean in 21st Century”.


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