"Treat yourself to the best coach you can find". Talking lean with Michael Ballé.

Michael Ballé is a lean executive coach who wrote a couple of books and articles about the links between knowledge and management. He is a leading expert on lean transformation initiatives, and an engaging and colorful public speaker, experienced in running interactive workshops.

Your book “ The Lean Manager” has been extremely popular. Who would you recommend it for?
Michael Ballé: The Lean Manager is the second tome of a trilogy of three lean novels. The first one, The Gold Mine is an introduction to lean for business managers. It describes how, as a business person, one can start with lean and turnaround a difficult financial situation, with improvements both in cash and profitability. The subtitle is indeed “a novel of lean turnaround.” The Lean Manager is designed for more advanced practitioners who already have had exposure to lean, or for managers in any company who’s leadership has suddenly decided to start a lean program. This second book in the series describes the full installation of lean within a unit, and the leadership changes this requires. It is called a “novel of lean transformation.” The forthcoming third installment will look into the leadership aspects of lean and more specifically the HR attitudes and tools needed to sustain lean thinking in any setting. It will be a “novel of lean practice.”

In your work you write about the importance of developing people. How to become a lean leader then ?
To become a lean leader you first have to come to grips that the problem is you. Any company, department or office you manage is a deforming mirror of your own attitudes and policies. Any waste you see is the unintended consequence of a policy you’ve implemented or how you’ve interpreted a corporate policy. Therefore, in order to transform your department, you first have to come to terms that you will have to transform yourself. This is a tough journey of discovery and self inquiry that is better to start with a sensei to guide you. The essential steps of becoming a lean leader are first, to lead from the ground up: to spend a lot of time at the gemba, challenging and listening, teaching problem solving and clearing obstacles for employees, encouraging kaizen and learning from people’s initiatives and creativity in order to align the company’s direction with individual fulfillment. The next step is to accept the learn-by-doing discipline of a pull system. Without the tension of the pull system, real problems won’t appear and people will spend their time kaizening irrelevant issues, essentially learning the wrong things. The third step is to understand the importance of teamwork and to learn how to intensify collaboration. Quality of problem solving is mostly dependent on how intense the collaboration between people from different specialties. The key to lean leadership is a gut feeling understanding that every one wants to understand where the company is going and why, and wants to contribute to that goal if not discouraged by silly policies and petty bosses. So the true aim of lean leadership is to enable every employee to partake in the joy of creation by having suggestions to move the business forward in their own job sphere, and implementing these suggestions themselves. Ultimately, becoming a lean leader means changing one’s self-image as a decision-maker with a small team of high-powered political allies and an army of arms, to a leader supporting a team of smart people at all levels.

How would you explain lean management?
Lean management is a system with the explicit aim of “developing products by developing people.” Lean management is a radical departure from all other managerial approaches inasmuch as it focuses on questions, not on answers. Lean management is a set of interrelated activities for people to learn how to improve safety, quality, flexibility and productivity in order to seek the complete elimination of waste. Waste needs to be understood for each company at all levels: what is the waste we create for customers by the way we design our products, what is the waste we create in the delivery process by the operations methods we chose, what is the waste we create for our partners and suppliers in handling these relationships. Detailed questions are organized in a structure system around five fundamental questions:

  • What is our level of customer satisfaction and how to improve it in terms of higher quality, lower cost, lower lead-time and better reactivity?
  • What is our current level of just-in-time and how to improve it in terms of how close to takt time are we? How can we better level demand? How can we flow more continuously? How can we pull more effectively with smaller batches?
  • What is our current level of jidoka in terms of how good are we at distinguishing OK from not-OK at every step of the process? Can we spot defects earlier? Can we stop quicker when we see a defect? Can we better separate people’s work from machine work?
  • What is our current adherence to work standards and how much kaizen are we doing in terms of can we perform more work at standardized work level? How much of the workplace has been kaizened? Can we encourage deeper thinking and more suggestions?
  • How satisfied are our employees of working with us in terms of do they feel engaged in their work, involved with their teams and other colleagues and can we develop higher mutual trust between employees and management? How can we create better conditions for people to succeed at what they do and in their careers? How can we better align company performance and individual fulfillment?

Contrarily to any other management approach this set of questions doesn’t have any predetermined answer – there are no “best practices” to roll out, no cookie-cutter solutions to implement. Lean management is about teaching how to ask better and better questions so that each person finds their own answers. This does not mean any one has to reinvent the wheel every time – there is a body of knowledge collectively known as “standards” to help employees distinguish which questions have been reasonably solved and which are still open. The idea is to look constantly for either a gap to standard (we should achieve at this level of performance with this process, but in our local conditions something else is happening), or for improvement of the standard (we usually perform thus with this process, but we believe that in our local conditions we could do far better).

Lean management is a method to create trust between people by working together on solving specific problems, and in so developing every person’s autonomy in their ability to solve their own problems. As each person progresses in their technical expertise and their ability to work with others, so does the company as a whole. At the end of the day, customer satisfaction is an outcome of employee satisfaction. Lean management is the practice of continuously asking better and better questions to get better and better answers by all people all the time.

What is the best way to start managing your company according to lean methodology?
The starting point to managing your company according to lean is to make a total commitment to learn it yourself rather than delegate it to a department or outside expert. Lean success can be spectacular, with twice the growth and twice the profitability of competitors but in EVERY known case of the success the leader has started by learning personally to go to the gemba (customers, engineering, production and suppliers) and learn to identify the specific forms of waste in his or her situation. This usually entails working with a sensei, a lean coach experienced in the long tradition of lean because many of these issues are obvious in hindsight, but can’t be invented if someone doesn’t point you in the right direction. So, to start with, find a sensei you can work with and commit to a program of gemba visits.

The second point is to communicate this commitment to the rest of the organization by setting clear improvement goals for SAFETY, QUALITY, FLEXIBILITY and PRODUCTIVITY – this is a “no argument” requirement which will bring home to the middle-level managers that they must also get personally involved in the lean effort.

The third point is the determination to involve all employees in the system. Technically, this is done through the systematic use of visual management, a way to organize the workplace so that goals are clear and one can see at one glance whether the situation is normal or abnormal, so that people understand better what is expected of them and how to contribute. Visual management is not about having powerpoint charts on a wall, but about organizing the physical work environment intuitively, and so this needs to be learned at some point, which is where consultants or an internal lean office can help. In many cases, I’ve seen the CEO develop this system directly with the sensei on the gemba, but a rigorous knowledge of lean tool is imperative at this stage to support real problem solving.

Fourthly, you must not loose focus on the main aim of lean, which is cultivating capable leaders to provide employees with the necessary practical skills to succeed at their jobs. As a leader, the temptation is to get involved in hands-on problems and solve problems for people. The trick to sustained lean performance is learning to look at the people, not the situation, and see how they handle it for themselves and where should we help them to either better understand the deep aspects of their jobs or to learn to collaborate more intensely with their own teams and/or outside experts.

A pull system from customers all the way to suppliers is the architecture to do so, as it’s a system to run processes according to the reality of demand so that managers are free to solve problems and develop people. Ultimately, the pull system and daily kaizen are the key to developing leaders, not followers.

You have twenty years of experience in studying lean transformation, what is the most important lesson that you learned?
You don’t know what you don’t know. The way we define problems has real impacts as people start working on these problems to solve them, so we have to keep challenging ourselves to be open minded and look for creative problems. It’s very easy to feel vindicated by early results and to feel that you’ve figured it out. I’ve been studying lean for twenty years and the main questions still surprise me by their depth and subtlety. For instance, how do we apply lean to the main issues of our society: waste in the energy production chain and waste in the food supply chain? There is no end to lean learning and, more importantly, overall “principle” or “philosophy” level concepts are no help at all if one doesn’t delve deep in the technicalities of specific situations, in the real place with real people.

As one sensei once said about how many managers use lean systems “What they are doing is creating a Buddha image and forgetting to inject soul in it.” The “soul” is the kaizen spirit. It’s always tempting to tell others they should improve rather than ask oneself the fundamental question of “what should I improve? What is my kaizen project.” Today’s business environment is increasingly turbulent as technology and globalization disrupt all markets and supply chains. Answers have a shortening half-life so, half of what we know is wrong, but we don’t know which half. The trick is keeping the curiosity to constantly challenge our own thinking and discover our own misconceptions. As John Shook once told me, what lean practice really teaches us is to learn how to learn.

What advice would you give to a newbie businessmen?
Don’t jump on the lean bandwagon. Don’t got to the first consultant you know and sign on for a lean project. Over the years, I’ve known several CEOs who have had spectacular success with lean and their advice is mostly the same “start with the top, find a sensei you can work with and drive it through the line on the gemba.” It’s a personal journey where who individuals are –and how well they get along - really matters. My advice would be to read the lean books, get involved in the lean community and take the time to figure out what’s what and who’s who. There’s a lot of taylorist thinking disguised as lean out there, as the “executives decide, experts optimize and workers work” model of the enterprise is what we’ve all grown up with. The depth of our conditioning is often surprising and hard to change at an emotional level. You need to enjoy developing people more than getting immediate results, which is quite a change.

The first step is to invest in yourself – so take the time to treat yourself to the best coach you can find. Although there are some spectacular lean success, there are also some equally spectacular failures when the chief exec has signed on a lean program that has nothing of the kaizen spirit or the respect for people attitudes at the core or “real lean.” My advice would therefore to take the time to figure our the difference between taylorist lean and real lean – most of the lean classics discuss this issue – and start thinking lean by looking for questions rather than looking for answers. Then go to the gemba with a sensei and enjoy the ride. As one of my sensei once told me “gemba is your greatest teacher.”

This blog post was previously published on LeanItUp and moved here.

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