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).