The Emperor’s New Huddle Boards

emperorAfter a one-day observation at a local company, I participated in a wrap-up meeting with the General Manager and his team. “We’ve been at this for five years,” the general manager said to me, proudly referring to his division’s lean implementation. “Our 5S rating is over 85% and every department spends one hour per week on problem-solving.”   He continued on for several more minutes to extol the vibrancy of their transformation, citing numbers of A3’s, kaizen events and Gemba walks. “I visit team huddle boards every month to monitor adherence. And our corporate maturity score is 3.5 out of 4!”   Finally, in an attempt at humility he glanced to other managers in the room and concluded, “Of course, there’s always room for improvement.   What did you see when you visited our site today?” I took a long pause before answering his question.

I had just finished touring the facility at his request to provide a rough idea of how the site would fare in a Shingo Prize challenge. I had spent a half-day in the factory with the factory manager and several hours in support departments trying to understand the current condition of their improvement process.   My observation bore out the appearance of various activities he described, but there seemed to be no outcomes associated with these. Employees were going through the motions, but not creating change. A3’s posted on the factory wall had grown stale. Huddle boards, notable for their abundance, were updated inconsistently.

“Where is the problem-solving?” I asked a supervisor at one of the factory huddle boards. “We get to it when we can, but it’s been pretty busy lately,” she apologized. I continued, “How often do you get a visit from management?” “Once in a while,” she chuckled, “but that’s okay. We have enough problems as it is.” The factory manager standing next to me looked disapprovingly at his supervisor’s quip. He said to me a bit later in the tour “We need to change our culture. They are not on board.”

Who is they? I asked. “The front line,” he responded.

As we continued into the office spaces I commented, “It looks like you have a lot of Lean props, like A3’s and huddle boards and color-coding, but I don’t see much happening.”

That’s why you’re here,” he replied. “We made some big changes – cut costs and reduced lead-times — at the start of our Lean journey, but we have had difficulty getting employees engaged.”

“What have you done previously to promote Lean?” I asked.

The factory manager responded. “We had consultants swarming the place for a couple years, and spent a small fortune on huddle boards. And we provided Lean training for everyone. Our first wave of improvements seemed to go well, but then we stalled.”

I agreed. “Yes, the process appears to have stagnated. Why are you interested in challenging for the Shingo Prize?”

After a moment, the factory manager replied, “Our GM has an interest.”

  • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Back at the boardroom debrief, I responded to the general manager’s question. “You have a very successful, traditionally managed business”, I began in an attempt to temper my comments, “but I don’t sense an environment that supports improvement and problem-solving.” The president frowned a bit. I continued.   “Use of Lean tools like visual boards and problem-solving are inconsistent and not purposeful. From a distance, it looks like something’s happening, but closer inspection suggests that problems are not being addressed and resources for improvement are scarce. Most of the activity is being generated by a few supervisors. “  I continued a bit longer to amplify my observations with specific details from the floor.

As I spoke, I noted that several of the president’s staff glancing to him for a response. I concluded. “Several times today I heard that employees don’t have the right culture.   The responsibility for changing that culture resides in this room. My recommendation is that your management team re-evaluate your roles and participation needed to create a culture that’s more favorable to improvement.”

After a short deafening silence, a manager responded nervously, addressing the president as much as me. “I don’t agree that our process is broken as Mr. Hamilton suggests. We’ve made a lot of progress.” Other managers nodded in agreement. “Bobble heads,” I thought to myself.

Bolstered by this support, the president addressed me. “Well, everyone is welcome to their opinions. We’d like to thank you for coming in today.” The meeting was over.

Call me a bad salesman, but the emperor had no Lean.


Interested to learn more about management’s role to move beyond “tools” to create a Lean culture? Check out GBMP’s Events page for upcoming courses from the Shingo Institute, as well as our own workshops and video training targeted specifically to creating a work environment that support and accelerates improvement.

10 thoughts on “The Emperor’s New Huddle Boards

  1. Mark Graban

    There are many organizations that seem to be more interested in saying they are “doing Lean” than really doing it. I’ve seen what you describe in some hospitals. “We’ve been doing Lean for 5 years,” but there’s zero evidence of any daily continuous improvement or any good Lean thinking at the executive level.

  2. Mike Orzen

    Hi Bruce,

    This is another masterpiece!

    Mike Mike Orzen & Associates, Inc. Sent from my iPhone


  3. Manny

    Talent n desire seem to b there but it’s that old commitment that ruins it every time!! Eddie V

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. fate1948

    Thanks for your comments. My friend and business associate, Pat Wardwell, noted recently the “the fish rots first from the head” 🙂 Happy Spring!

  5. Gary H. Lucas

    At my last employer we did TQM sessions with most employees, but not all. Noticeably absent was the owner who with an MBA didn’t need to attend the training sessions. The results of course were predictable, as in non-existent!

  6. JeremyC

    “Masterpiece” -took the words out of my mouth. The centralized Command and Control management model has beguiled us for too long. Perhaps we should force them all to wear jeans not chinos. I once saw a cartoon of a boss figure sitting in the neck of a bottle, with minions beneath him inside the bottle trying to push out, and the caption saying something like, “Bottlenecks are always found in the necks of bottles”.

  7. Keith

    I pass by the empty building once occupied by a similar company that I had similar results with. I was not surprised when they closed. The worst candidates for process improvement are the companies that changed a little bit and celebrated victory. I prefer those who do good work and agonize about not doing more. They get it!

  8. Tom Cox

    That president had weak self esteem and was seeking validation, not improvement. He’d have made a terrible customer, unless you were prepared to work directly on the president’s emotional (im)maturity.

    Lean requires significant emotional maturity at the senior leadership level.

    Lovely article, Bruce.

  9. Pingback: Happy Hollow Lean | Old Lean Dude

  10. Pingback: Leader Standard Waste | Old Lean Dude

Leave a Reply