October was Lean conference month for me: First our own Northeast Lean Conference in Worcester (pronounced “Wustah”), then the international AME conference in Dallas and finally, the mid-Atlantic Lean Conference in Timonium, Maryland. These annual assemblages of Lean wizards are themed to inspire, inform and reinvigorate true believers and newbie wannabees; maybe not wizards, but at least committed to continuous improvement at some level. I’m always flattered when someone sees me at conference and wants a selfie with the “toast guy.” But really, if we were wizards, there would be a lot more Lean magic out there in the workplace. After forty-five years in the workforce, almost thirty of them spent personally pursuing TPS understanding, I worry sometimes that the major product of TPS so far has been more wizards, not more excellent organizations. When I began my Lean odyssey, for example, there were precious few persons or functions in any organization dedicated to continuous improvement: no kaizen program offices, no value stream managers, no lean accountants, no lean trainers, no belts, and no lean consultants. Today there is an entire industry dedicated to training, developing and placing these folks.
What struck me at October’s Lean conferences was how nomadic this community of wizards has become. Rarely do I find a consultant, internal or external, who has remained with the same organization for more than a couple years. Some have moved on for higher pay, but most it seems it seems are refugees from organizations whose commitment to improvement has waned. Gallows humor regarding shifting sands beneath Lean foundations abounded in private networking discussions, and more than a few business cards changed hands. While building a Lean culture has emerged as singularly important to Lean transformation, it seems that the wizards do not find enough stability within their organizations to stay in one place long enough to help to create that culture.
Many years ago I was asked to present at a Lean conference at University of Dayton. They requested specifically that I speak on “Survival of the Change Agent.” When I suggested that I felt uncomfortable with the topic, they pleaded, “But we can’t find another change agent who has survived.” No doubt, that was an exaggeration, but even in 1992, Lean transformers were careful not to push the Lean envelope too far. So perhaps nothing has changed in twenty-five years. Last week I received a request for help from a talented and insightful Lean change agent whom I will have known now through four different companies. She continues to grow and develop her skills while the organizations from which she has moved on have plateaued in their Lean journeys. Maybe there are just more wizards in flux today. At the recent AME Dallas conference, a Lean colleague and vice president of opex for a large corporation mentioned to me “I have never seen so many resumes from continuous improvement persons in transition.”
To my readers: Do you also see this phenomenon? What are the implications? I’m not sure what to think about this, but it’s a little spooky. Happy Halloween. : )
PS A reminder that the onsite discounted registration price for our 13th (another spooky coincidence?) annual Northeast Lean Conference was extended to November 8th. Don’t miss out on saving 30% per seat, simply by registering online in the next week. Only $665 per person (normally $950).
Thank you for your post.
I am a Lean Specialist for a manufacturing company in the Pacific Northwest (Washington State). I’ve been in the lean group just over 3 ½ years and have seen a dramatic reduction in lean leaders in my company, either from layoffs or people finding different jobs mostly outside the company. The trend is a little alarming. Thanks again,
Your point is well-made, Bruce (as usual)! I feel extremely fortunate to not only still be with my first company love (O.C. Tanner) but also that lean continues to flourish here. I don’t know who to thank more: the incredible people to whom I’ve reported, or the phenomenal team members (to whom I’ve reported.)
Gary – Thanks for the response. The word “continuous” derives from a Latin root meaning “to hang together” I think we need to learn what causes your organization to hang together, and emulate that. No doubt you have incredible people, but then I also know many incredible people that labor in incredibly bad situations. As Edwards Deming put it, “A bad system will beat a good man (sic) any day.”
As someone who has been involved in improvement training in healthcare across a number of organisations in the UK and New Zealand for 17 years, I find the following quote by Macchiavelli (The Prince, 1505) explains the situation best when I am feeling cynical:
“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”
Allan, thanks. Very insightful. It seems sometimes that things just can’t get bad enough to upset that natural order. Much harder especially in larger organizations where there are are so many lukewarm defenders.
Hey O.L.D., I think it’s time a few from our company attended a LEAN conference. You’ve mentioned the NE conference, is there a’class’ of these events? What others are there?
Luke Ismert Schier Products
Hi Luke. My organization, GBMP, puts together a conference every fall in Massachusetts where lean practitioners can meet and share and learn and benchmark. It depends on what you like – big trade show-type events with thousands of people (AME for example is a very well-known event) or a smaller more intimate style conference – our event attracts approximately 600 people each year. Other options are the LEI lean transformation summit and the IW Best Plants conference. Another factor is how much you want to spend – they vary from $800 per person to $2500 and up. Also, some are one day, ours is two days, and others can be four or even five days long. As you can see there are lots of events to choose from. Personally of course I think you should attend ours conference – Bruce
Bruce: your observations on transitional lean practitioners strike a chord. I am one. After 30 years with four firms (where I moved from manager to operational excellence sensei to overall leader of the organization) I finally departed with regret. The great recession had some affect on my departure but the shareholders did not see the strategic value in what we were doing. Not enough current return on investment as well as short term P&L impact of inventory reductions and not understanding the longer term impact on balance sheet, cash flow, and implications of increased flexibility and speed to market. “B” school key performance indicators drive inappropriate behaviors. I have an MBA but learned to get beyond it.
I have four other acquaintances in the same row boat. Couple of years ago I left industry and joined my State’s MEP and began hosting conferences and doing speaking engagements. I have the opportunity to work with small and medium sized businesses who are less prone to traditional measures and more willing to embrace concepts of operational excellence. The smaller the firm and the less public the organization appears to be the key to easier adoption of best practices.
Bruce, thanks for writing about this. Love your costume ! In my short seven years practicing lean in healthcare I’m on my 4th organization as well. I suppose it’s nice to know I’m not the only one. I think there are several reasons for the phenomenon you’ve noticed, and one of them isn’t the joy of job hopping. You’re on to part of it around the commitment to culture change.
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