Lean Pretenders

I was listening today to a song from The Platters (there are just a few of you who will remember that group) that was the inspiration for this post:

“Oh, yes I’m the great pretender,
Pretending that I’m doing well,
I seem to be, but I’m not you see . . .”

There are many would-be lean implementers who are great pretenders:  lean pretenders.   An all too prevalent phenomenon, lean pretending mostly affects divisions of large corporations.  The home office in these cases mandates a process loosely derived from lean thinking, with a public pronouncement of “operational excellence” but also a persistent undercurrent to “look good.”

Looking good always involves a company-wide clean up under the heading of 5S.  An employee of one savvy client put it to me,  “Those folks have a top-down implementation with a shallow goal of looking good for customer tours.  We call it ‘customer-tour lean’.”  

Generic scorecards for 5S compliance abound in these companies with division managers competing against a hypothetical target of, say, 80% of perfect.  No wonder these scores are typically high; bonuses depend on them….  Inspirational posters about waste and teamwork are also big business too.  But little has really improved. Observation at these sites soon reveals  that set locations for material and tools may look good, but are not really useful to the people doing the work.  One office employee confided to me, “In the words of  rocker David Lee Roth,  ‘It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how good you look.’  We’re just putting things where our boss tells us, but she doesn’t know what’s really needed and where it should be placed.”

As lean pretenders “mature,” more lean props are added to the mix:  production control boards, kanban signage and work combination charts are common.  Managers at these sites say, “We’ve been doing lean for X years.”   But even casual observation of the actual work quickly reveals that standards are not, or can not, be followed:  Workers do not produce to takt, part stores are either over-stocked or short, Andon lights flash without response.  These sites focus on means as if they were the ends: number of kaizen events, number of green belt projects, number of A3’s and so on.  An operational excellence manager of a large multi-national corporation who spends 75% of his time visiting sites to assess their lean implementations complains, “Our method for measurement is objective, but it does not drive the right behaviors.  Site managers say, ‘Yes, we have kanban,’ and we check a box – check-box lean.”    Pretenders.

‘Getting lean’ is the stated objective at these sites, but appearing lean is often good enough. Why do lean pretenders settle for the appearance of improvement when they can have the real thing?   The main reason I think is that corporate management in these lean pretenders undervalues the opportunities available through lean, and is instead pursuing traditional avenues to competitiveness such as plant consolidation and outsourcing.  In these cases, site managers live quarter to quarter, with no incentive to invest resources in real improvement.  Maybe it’s better for them to pretend. 

Do you know any lean pretenders?  What are the causes of that behavior?  Let me hear from you. 

O.L.D.

BTW.  Don’t miss the Northeast Shingo Conference, October 5-6 in Springfield, Massachusetts.   No pretenders in our Lean Lounge, just two dozen real lean implementers sharing their experiences.

4 thoughts on “Lean Pretenders

  1. Bruce,

    Let me propose that there’s one sure fire way to become a “lean pretender.” (And yes, I’m old enough to remember The Platters.) I’d suggest that if the member of upper management who proclaimed that “we’re going to do lean” doesn’t really understand lean – and using the phrase I shared in quotes shows they don’t – then you’re going to become a lean pretender. Many of these senior managers know nothing more about lean than “it’s supposed to save you money.” If that’s all somebody knows, then there are any number of ways to save money – and still never even dabble with lean.

    In summary, a true lean leader understands that lean is more than a poster campaign and doing it right requires some skin in the game all the way to the top. I’ll leave it to you to place odds on which situation we see more often.

    Tom Warda

  2. Pingback: Lean Pretenders (via Old Lean Dude) | kaizendiary

  3. I feel like a Lean pretender. I’ve been employed to refresh the CI framework in the operational area of a large company and it feels like every single day I discover a new methodology or a new POV that makes me question my basic training and abilities. But my colleagues only see the charts and slide packs I produce so I ‘keep looking good’.

  4. Grace,
    Thanks for your reply. It’s nice to know that folks occasionally take a look back at some of my earlier posts. Maybe, change up the slide packs a little to focus on business issues or personal struggles of your students, and then use the technical aspects of Lean to address those. (Check out my latest post.)
    Bruce

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