Category Archives: Old Lean Dude

Accountability or Authority?

Reflecting on McGregor’s  X and Y Theories of human motivation,  Shigeo Shingo took the position that each of us by nature has a dual  tendency: sometimes lazy and self-interested, and other times motivated and generous.  Which of these behaviors dominates is directly related to the environment in which we find ourselves – call it culture.   

My personal experience as a manager, and as an employee, has surely confirmed Shingo’s opinion for me.  Dropped into a manufacturing management role in 1986 with NO manufacturing experience, I had the opportunity to experience a quintessential Type X culture.  My predecessor, a man of considerable personal knowledge of the business, had ruled for decades with an iron fist, intolerant of opinions other than his own.   I remember commenting to a friend when I first took over the manufacturing VP job,  “it seems like employees are children and production employees are bad children.”   Transferring from an IT role in a different building to this new world of distrust and muted dissatisfaction was indeed a culture shock for me.   After a short time on the job, my general foreman presented me with a list of employees to “keep an eye on.”  He thought he was being helpful.  “Troublemakers,” he  whispered to me. 

It turns out that a few of the troublemakers became early adopters of a different kind of culture, one where employees would be seen as “the most valuable resource.”  What distinguished these rabble-rousers was that they had refused to be beaten down by the previous regime.  My role as a manager was, in the words of Mr. Shingo, to turn their dissatisfaction (Theory X) into “constructive dissatisfaction” (Theory Y.)  At the time I described the experience as akin to freeing prisoners.  I wasn’t making them participate; I was just asking for their help.   That seemingly simple shift ruffled more than a few feathers in management, a humbling experience I documented in a 2012 post jokingly entitled Lead with Humiliation.  Lean transformation,  I discovered, while difficult for everyone, is hardest for managers. 

So, what does this story have to do with the words “accountability” and “authority”?   In 2006, I had the pleasure of listening to David Mann, author of “Creating a Lean Culture“, deliver a presentation at the Shingo Conference on Leader Standard Work (LSW.)  “A novel concept,” I thought to myself.  “Why not clarify the manager’s role in developing a Lean culture?”    So much effort had already been put into transforming front-line systems, but very little in transforming the management systems for folks who were steering the ship.  In fact, the concept to engage managers by check-listing key culture-changing management activities, caught on in a big way.  Many an organization I visit today has attempted to add LSW to its Lean transformation.  Unfortunately, fifteen years and millions of white boards later, what seemed like a good concept is failing in execution.  Here are my observations.    

“Creating a Lean Culture” depicts the Lean management system as comprised of three parts:

  1. Visual Controls.  Mann describes a wide variety of devices such as hour-by-hour charts intended to make each process obvious on a real-time basis.  Are we on schedule?  Are there defects?   But very few organizations that I visit have a robust standardized work system for specifying and improving work.   More common is “standard work,” which describes only the sequence of the work, often in generalities.   Whether in a factory or office or operating room, the failure to understand cadence and precise composition of the work creates a very shaky foundation for accountability.   
  2. Standard Accountability.  This, for most sites I visit, is the centerpiece of the Lean management system.  Operational status for a work group is summarized periodically and discussed at a brief stand-up meeting.   Impediments to flow are noted and countermeasures are reviewed.  The supervisor of the front line is the owner of the “Tier 1” board and is accountable meet specific KPI’s.   The Tier 1 board is tied  to goals and targets set at a higher-level Tier 2 board, which is owned by the manager.  He or she is accountable for Tier 2.  Finally, at the global level is the Tier 3 board owned by the executive.  This is the principle that enables oversight and alignment of goals and measures. 

    Several issues frustrate the effectiveness of Standard Accountability. 
    • First, as noted above, workers are often not given a stable, repeatable process to run.  Says Mann, “until you demonstrate an improvement in stability of a process by applying the tools of Lean production, leader standard work comes across as a waste of time, a bureaucratic abstraction without real meaning.”
    • Second, inadequate attention is given to actual Kaizen.  Referring to the role of leader standard work, Mann notes, “the journey truly begins in earnest after the production floor has been rearranged, or procedures redefined.” But, if front-line capability to deploy countermeasures to problems has not first been established, then what system is there to manage?   It’s a bit like coaching a baseball team where the players themselves have never played.  We can measure the balls and strikes, but nobody has learned how to bat.  Before accountability, there must be ability. 
    • Third, there’s that word “accountability.”  Check out Roget’s Thesaurus for the synonyms:   blame, fault, liability, answerability, responsibility, culpability, chargeability.  Or just listen to the evening news for the connotation of the word.   It’s the equivalent of referring to mistake-proofing as fool-proofing.   In this sense, accountability is more like finger-pointing.  Mr. Shingo condemned the word fool-proofing because it was a Theory X word.  I think if he were alive today, he would also ban the use of word accountability for the same reason.   When our words imply that we must make people do something, we’re perpetuating an archaic Theory X view.  As managers, we should be enabling our employees to develop their capabilities.  We should be authorizing them to master their crafts.  Words mean something.  We should choose them carefully. 
    • Finally, the concept of tiered accountability can provide an empowering line of sight to all employees and managers, IF it is sincerely followed by all – and when I see the occasional effective tiered accountability process it underscores the power of true alignment.   More commonly, however, engagement at higher tiers is spotty; accountability in that case flows downhill.   The message at Tier 1 is “S.O.S.” 

  3. Leader Standard Work (LSW).  This is the management checklist that keeps everyone practiced with the new way, a thoughtfully constructed list of periodic tasks for executives, managers and supervisors, designed to show visible commitment and support for the new way.  This is the concept that first intrigued me when I listened to David Mann’s presentation in 2006: a reminder to managers to be leaders for change.  My observation over the last decade is that managers who use LSW well soon become practiced and no longer need a checklist.   Unfortunately, many managers create a checklist, but then don’t follow it.  “My day is too unpredictable to use leader standard work,” one manager tells me.  An all too common refrain.  We are asking our employees to embrace change, but we are excused.  It is perhaps no accident that the third edition of Mann’s book, released a decade after the original, adds a full chapter dealing with the challenge to engage management. 

From the foregoing rant, it may seem that I don’t subscribe to concepts put forth in “Creating a Lean Culture”; but in fact, fifteen years after its publication, I continue to believe that if employees have both ability and authority, then the guidance and alignment provided by a Lean management system is imperative. That is Theory Y.  As David Mann reminds us, “Execution is the key to lean management.”   The authority to execute, today as in 2006, rests squarely on the shoulders of executives. 

What is your experience creating a Lean management system?  Can you share a story or observation?  


Hope to see you all at our 15th annual Northeast LEAN Conference in Hartford, October 23-24.  The topic of engagement – employees and execs – will be a main focus.  Our theme this year, Total Employee Involvement, combines the knowledge and experience of leading practitioners and experts.  Want more information?  Click here. 

Field of Daisies

A daisy rising from my brick walkway reminded me this morning, that even in the worst environment, there is a chance for growth.  But this kind of individual heroism does not portend success for Lean transformation.  As an organization with the slogan “Everybody Everyday,” GBMP places high value on Total Employee Involvement as an essential piece of continuous improvement.

I have a long-standing practice of asking managers “What percent of your employees come to work every day, excited about a potential solution to a problem or an idea for improvement?”   

After 20 years in Lean consulting, the answers I receive to that question have not changed much.  Here are a few:

  • “We had a good run for a few months when maybe a third of our workforce was engaged, but we’re probably at about 5% now.”
  • “The only serious work on improvement or problem solving comes from our dedicated Kaizen team.” 
  • “One company owner, call him John Smith, actually told me during a sales call, “Our employees are morons, so that wouldn’t work here,” a comment sufficiently offensive that I politely excused myself from the meeting: “If that’s how you feel, Mr. Smith, then you’re right, Lean is not an option for you.” 

Fortunately, most responses to my question are kinder than Smith’s, but the percentage estimate for employee involvement is still almost always less than 25%.  If less than one fourth of employees are participating in problem solving or improvement, no wonder so many organizations report lukewarm outcomes from Lean.  You can debate the exact percentages for employee involvement, but all of the estimates and expectations are resignedly low.  

So, what’s missing?  Do we need  better employees as Mr. Smith suggests?  Or are employees like the daisy in my walkway?    Even an awful environment will grow an occasional daisy.   We call those few, the “self-starters”, the “A-team”, persons who rise above every obstacle to achieve.  And how do we reward them?  We give more challenges to them until they are overwhelmed.  That’s the predominant system. 

So, how do some organizations break through to generate broad employee involvement?   A manager from one Shingo Prize-winning factory related:

 “When we first subscribed to the Shingo insight that systems drive behavior, we realized if employees were not engaged, then perhaps the means by which we encouraged involvement needed to be revised.  That was a humbling eye-opener.  For example, we discovered that our idea system was literally losing employee ideas in the evaluation process.  Employees took this as rejection and just stopped submitting ideas.  They felt disrespected.”

At a deeper level, the willingness of this factory’s managers to question the systems that they themselves had created exemplified a couple of fundamental Shingo Principles:

  • Lead with humility
  • Respect every individual  

According to the manager from that factory, “the biggest lesson for me personally was how much my behavior affected all of my employees.  These principles have been guideposts for us to create an army of problem solvers.”  Call it a field of daisies.

Are you relying on a few self-starters to create improvement or are you developing an army of involved employees?   Please share your thoughts.    


BTW – Want to learn more about creating a culture of Total Employee Involvement?  We’ve got a twofer for you. 

First, on October 21-22, we’ll be at Legrand (Wiremold) in Hartford teaching the Shingo Institute’s CULTURAL ENABLERS workshop that describes the fundamental principles of Lead with Humility and Respect Every Individual.  Read more about it here.

Then on October 23-24, the 15th Annual Northeast LEAN Conference will be held at  The Connecticut Convention Center, also in Hartford. The event features 50+ sessions to engage the hearts and minds of our most valuable asset, out employees. Learn about GBMP’s biggest event of the year here and register your team today! I sincerely hope to see you there.

Small Things

Last February I had the opportunity to observe healthcare providers up close and personal at one the world’s premier hospitals.  “Who Cares for the Caregivers?” was written from the perspective of a patient in a cardiac step-down unit, sympathetically surveilling caregivers’ as they grappled with many small problems in their workday.  Here is another story from the 8th-floor recovery area:

small things

At 3:00 a.m., except for the sound of occasional call bells, the floor was quiet.  Nurses and assistants quietly made rounds to dispense meds, check vitals and draw blood.  Patients were resting quietly when I was awakened suddenly by a bright light over my bed. “Oh, sorry,”  the CNA apologized as she turned off the light, “wrong bed.”   She then switched a second light on, hoping to hit the mark.    Again, “Oops, sorry.”   Because the order of the switches on the panel did not correspond to the order of the lights above the beds,  searching for bed lights had become routine.   I drifted back to sleep, amused at this particular guesswork problem.  Guesswork isn’t really work as the noun implies; it’s waste.   This was a defect, which caused frustration for the CNA and a little bit of discomfort for the patients.  Clinic staff was just expected to remember the order.  I smiled because I’d seen a similar problem many years before in a totally different setting.

In 2003, I had been teaching a workshop at a local furniture manufacturer.  A small corner of the company’s showroom had been cordoned off to act as our classroom.  On the wall of our classroom was a light panel with eleven switches, each controlling a different area in the showroom and adjacent offices.  As class began, to darken the classroom for projection, I flipped the switch that my intuition told me should correspond to the spotlights over my projection screen.  “Hey, what’s going on?” came a question from the other side of the wall.  “Sorry,” I replied as I hit the next switch for an instant and then the next, trying to turn off my lights and nobody else’s.  After four tries, I finally got it right.   While my class that day had nothing to do with visual control, we took a few minutes to label the switch panel, a simple way to address the rare occasion that all lights were not turned on or off at the same time.  “It’s a small thing,” I told the class, “but you’ll never have that problem again.”

Back to February 2018, later in the morning as my nurse was leaving her shift, I asked her about the light panel.  “How long as it been this way?”  Apologetically, she replied, “Forever.  Sorry to wake you last night, I usually remember the order of the lights, but last night I forgot.”

“You shouldn’t have to deal with a broken process,” I said, “why don’t you just label the switches?”    She thought for a second and replied, “Good idea.”   Before her shift was over, the two errant switches had been marked to clarify the lighting sequence over the beds.  And, guess what?  The following night lights were switched on without annoyance to staff or patients.   When it was my turn for a visit from the CNA, I thanked her for fixing the problem.  “It was a small thing,” she humbly replied.   I thanked her again and responded, “Yes, but you’ll never have the problem again.”  

How many “small things” does it take to change a person’s outlook – or to change an organization?   What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts & experiences on the matter.

Save Dates


By the way, now is a great time to snag early bird pricing for GBMP’s annual Lean Conference. It’s our 15th year and we’ll be in Hartford, CT on October 23-24, 2019. Visit to learn more. It’s just another small thing you can do that will save you money and help to accelerate your Lean efforts in 2019. 


Sorta Systems ImageLast year I had a short stay at one of Boston’s best hospitals.  While I will be forever grateful for the excellent treatment I received while in their care, I wondered about a few systems that sat directly in front of my bed.  So, I took a picture to share later.  Here is what I saw:

  1. The storage bins at the left of the photo seemed a little messy and hard to reach, but they apparently served a useful function of putting bedside supplies near to the patient.  On two occasions, however, needed items were missing, requiring my caregivers to go in search elsewhere.   This raised a series of 5WIH questions for me. For example, who decided what and how much was needed in the room?  Why were bins sometimes empty?  Who was responsible to refill?  Where did the supplier go to fetch the needed items?  Also, was the cause of the missing parts traced?
  2. The whiteboard served only one purpose for me: it put a smile on my face. I wish I’d invested in the whiteboard market when I began my consulting career. They’ve multiplied exponentially since the advent of Lean.    My name, the date and the doc’s name (redacted) were up to date, but nothing else was filled in. Who designed the board?  Was all of the information needed?  Did anyone really know what my estimated discharge date was anyway?  If this visual system were essential to my care, then there would be cause for patient worry.  If the system was actually not impactful to either me or the caregivers that would also be cause for concern as it was wasting wall space and valuable caregiver time.
  3. The final sorta-system, a laminated visual aid that sat under the white board, was never used during my visit. It appeared to be related to patient safety, but neither the patient name nor the date was correct.  A checkbox on the visual aid indicated that I needed a walker.  I didn’t.

My question here is not whether or not any of these systems were potentially useful, nor am I questioning any of the actions or performance of my excellent caregivers and support staff.   My question is “How often do we audit systems that are supposed to be making us more productive?”

Recalling W. Edwards Deming’s 95/5 rule that 95% of the variation in the performance of a system is caused by the system itself and only 5% is caused by the people, if a system is not working as intended, what steps do we take to analyze and adjust?   And what are the consequences to the system if we just set it and forget it?  What impact to our employees and customers?

How often do you take stock of the systems that run your business?  When you do, what are your discoveries?   Please share a thought.



PS GBMP’s next public workshop – Problem Solving for Lean Teams in Healthcare – is a week from today at our new HQ in Boston’s Innovation/Seaport District. Seats remain. Visit our website to learn more/register your team.  Topic & workshop content is applicable to Lean teams from administrative and other functions of manufacturing organizations too! Hope to see you there!


December wasstuff a very busy month for everyone at GBMP.   In addition to all of the usual activities to close out the year, we were packing to relocate from Newton Massachusetts to our new office in Boston.   We were also tossing a whole lot of stuff, something we’d previously neglected to do.  As promoters of Lean, it seems we were a bit remiss ourselves in practicing what we preached.  Shigeo Shingo famously noted that “the worst waste is the waste we cannot see.”   Fact is, if you have enough space and your piles are neat, it looks like you’re organized.   While we were extolling the virtues of 5S to our clients, we were also getting our PhD (Pile it Higher and Deeper) in neatly arranging stagnant files, videos, flyers, posters, banners, displays, and unusable electronics.  It’s amazing how much stuff can hide in plain sight under a cloak of invisibility.  We were tidy, but not organized.    Better that we’d have been sloppy about it because then we might have seen it.

A couple of weeks before our move, we contracted with 1-800-JUNK to leave a three-yard dumpster bag in the center of our office as a repository for the stuff we were sluffing off before moving.   On day one we filled it, triggering a cycle of dump and regret. Employees (including me) began sifting for valuable stuff.  “Can’t we use these file folders?” I asked our office manager, Tracy.  “No! That’s a ten-year supply,” she fired back, “they’re not coming.”   Tracy tried fruitlessly to sell some stuff on Craigslist and finally was able to donate a couple of unneeded printers to charity.  Lela donated whatever office supplies she could fit into the trunk of her car to her daughter’s underfunded afterschool program. (The program coordinator nearly cried at the sight of 2 pristine reams of 11×17 paper.)

Altogether we filled three dumpster bags with the remainder.  The final dumpster load contained two cartons of one of my favorite DVD’s, “Downsizing Lot Sizes,” a final irony in that this video warns about the many problems caused by overproduction (producing too much or producing before need.)  No doubt we had gotten a ‘sweet deal’ at some point on the 200 copies of the DVD, but I had to admit that this might have become a lifetime supply.  (Today we produce all of our videos, one-by-one, or offer them as streaming content.)  I turned to Tracy as if to seek a reprieve for the trashed videos, but before I could ask, Tracy just said “Nope!”

By the time we had finished 5S’ing GBMP’s old office, we had probably discarded two-thirds of what might have continued to hide in our new home.  The experience gives new meaning to “out with the old and in with the new.”   In 2019 we’re starting afresh, Leaner and wiser in our new home, sharing space and ideas with the Lean Enterprise Institute at Tower Point in Boston.    Is it time for you to take a second look at your stuff?

Happy New Year to all of our colleagues and friends.


PS Speaking of our move to Boston, we are looking forward to hosting our first public workshop event here at Tower Point, a two-day Six Sigma Yellow Belt Certification course, on April 29-30. I hope to see you there. Learn more about this and our other Lean training events – from webinars and workshops to plant tours, Shingo courses, and conferences – on our website here.