Monday, April 30, 2012

Lean Snake Oil Cures what Ails Ya

Step right up Ladies and Gentleman! Do you suffer from bulging inventories? Are you feeling tired and wore down chasing problems everyday at work? Are parts of your organization afflicted by dislocation? Perhaps you suffer from irregularity of flow or constipation and blockage? Do rashes of quality problems create irritability and discomfort? Having trouble applying kanban or finding the time for kaizen? Do you find incorporating lean thinking into your culture just too difficult and painful?

My friends fear not! Your days of suffering are over. Just one bottle of this new and improved formula of lean elixir has been scientifically proven under the most rigorous of conditions to cure what ails ya!

Yes, you heard me correct, my dear friends. This wonderful tonic of the east has the magical like powers to create a self-healing, self-improving, self-regulating system to free you from the hard work, constant coaching and relentless pursuit of perfection. No need to lead by example or get your hands dirty understanding your processes or teach others within your organization. You no longer need to help improve, just let you employees do it on their own under this system of self fixing.

Taking regularly and by explicitly following the directions on the bottle, you will be transformed like never before. And for a few extra dollars, you can speed up the lean process like never before by adding heavy doses of metrics and measurements followed by holding them accountable. Now all you need to do is go back to your office, sit back, relax and let the miracle medicine work its wonder.

Who will be the first to free themselves from the burdens of continuous improvement? Step right up!

Doesn’t this spiel sound just like what you imagine a snake oil salesmen from yesteryear would bark to the crowd gathered around his traveling wagon of wonder cures and concoctions?

Today, there is plenty of snake oil to go around. There seems to be a lot of touting of different models to achieve higher levels of leanness. Some place emphasis on certain lean tools, others promote a specific path or model as the missing link to achieve lean greatness. Really, can a lean system be self healing and self improving? Seriously?

In all my years of experience in learning the lean way and applying lean thinking in various companies and industries, I found that there is no silver bullet and no one best way, despite the boisterous marketing hype. I also learned that lean systems do not run by themselves.

Using kaizen and developing lean thinking into your culture takes time, energy and effort. More time than you think, tons of energy and a tremendous amounts of effort. Even after all your blood, sweat and tears, there are still no guarantees.

The lean approach is not easy and requires practice, perseverance and patience. It takes serious commitment by management that most are not willing to make.

We need everyone involved in kaizen, everyday, everywhere. This certainly includes our management. Everyone needs to make time for kaizen. Management need to be in gemba more often, not less. Bottom line, you can’t delegate kaizen.

So next time you hear about some secret to becoming lean remember that hard work and personal commitment is no secret. In the wise words of our elders before us, “if it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true”.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Suffering from Sick Sigma?

My good friend, Jonathan Sands, a Director of Operational Excellence for a large firm, recently told me about his experience with a company six sigma effort years ago. At first go around, he and other leaders undertook their black belt training with a huge burst of energy. Everyone was passionate about their six sigma projects and making huge improvements to their operational performance. The six sigma excitement was as hot as the burning fever with the winter flu.

As the six sigma virus started running its course, management interested grew less interested in dealing with real, significant problems and focused on just adding to the roster the number of people with colored belts. Training was done for training sake.

Anytime a complex problem with no solution known (which you would think is the perfect type for a six sigma black belt to attack) was made visible, it was pushed back and ignored. No real reason why, it just happened.

In just a short time, the six sigma update meetings were held less frequent and attendance started dropping.

Six Sigma projects were just done to get certified. And it seemed that the projects were less and less focused on the customer.

It did not take long for the six sigma fever to break and things started getting back to normal (a return to the status quo).

The six sigma program, left to wither and die, became known around this company as their sick sigma program.

This is not to be critical of the six sigma approach. I know many attempts using lean have met the same fate. Each program starts out with such promise for a bright future only to be found DOA in the morgue a few years later.

And they were so young, such a needless tragedy.