Sustainable change: Make it part of your team’s DNA

How to avoid "veneer" lean that looks good on the surface but is too thin to last.

March 30, 2012

Many manufacturers think nothing is being accomplished if their operations aren’t running at a rapid pace. Such thinking was helped along during the “economic turbulence” when panicked companies were frantically plugging holes, reorganizing the troops and attempting to implement quick fixes to nagging problems.

This is “veneer lean,” a visual adoption of tools that lacks the depth to truly change the organization’s DNA.

Take, for example, what some people claim is a kanban system. Often it’s really a 2-bin system (when one bin is empty, refill from a second until replenishment). A good kanban system has multiple signals within the value stream to ensure a steady flow of materials to the point of use, in spite of procurement lead-time.

And some companies embark on a 5S+1 journey that’s nothing more than a disciplined house cleaning. Proper workplace organization is a tactile, engineered assault on wasted search time and walking while improving ergonomics.

How do we avoid creating a false appearance of lean? Observation and reflection before taking action and enterprise value stream mapping are excellent ways to do this. Mapping allows people to be “on” rather than “in” the organization. During this event folks walk, interview and document the entire value stream. This exercise is significantly enhanced when the outside eyes of suppliers, customers or fellow consortium members are added.

An effective way to observe is called “standing in the circle.” Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System (TPS), coached his budding TPS leaders to carefully observe reality by drawing a chalk circle on the floor, telling them to stand in it for several hours and wipe their minds clean so they weren’t distracted by things that seemed more important. Such intensive observation fuelled kaizen thinking, which was necessary before they could coach others.

Kaizen is the core of TPS. All other techniques promote kaizen by maximizing the number of opportunities to practice it. It’s best to learn kaizen by doing. Classes merely familiarize people with techniques.

Developing experts helps, but the power of kaizen is multiplied many times if those experts coach others to identify and solve problems. Process visibility reveals problems to everyone, not just managers. When something is amiss, workers quickly determine the cause and take action. It also encourages everyone to look for more ways to self-manage processes and improve them.

Thoughtful visibility is a tenet of TPS. Ohno’s basic problem-solving method was “to ask why at least five times.” He wasn’t asking people to confine themselves to the circle, but to dig through the clutter and see the core problem.

Starting the change process
Always asking why and identifying problems takes constant practice. Toyota veterans know that when observing for the first time, it takes several hours – sometimes days – to achieve a basic understanding of a process.

Before you start the change process, ask the following questions: Why are we changing? What are we changing? What are we changing to?

Resistance also impacts change. Lean opens up capacity and change results in rumours and speculation that distract from the management process. Succession planning helps to maintain focus. Note these steps:

• Start with the current state, which is likely your current organizational chart. Your future state is the chart that follows change.

• How are you going to migrate from your current state to future state? Who is going to be affected and how? This may include the elimination of positions. Be honest about the result.

• Develop your migration plan. What are the aspirations of the people within your organization? Plan at least two moves ahead with a solid roadmap showing how to get there. Identify trigger points that will initiate the move and include this within the critical success metrics.

Process change can be all about transforming the face of the business, but people will want to know where they fit in. Showing them will lead to a successful transition to change that will be more durable than a thin veneer.

Richard Kunst is president and CEO of Kunst Solutions Corp., which publishes the “Lean Thoughts” e-newsletter. E-mail