Lean Transformations Group

For Lean Thinking Consultants, Transformation Is Not Easy and It Never Was

So often we hear stories of how lean thinking has transformed a company and life was great. But rarely, if ever, is this the full story. Andrew Lingel, President of United Plastic Fabricating Inc. (UPF), and I had planned on leading a learning session called “Knowledge, Grit, Outrage, and a Bias for Action” at the Lean Summit in April in California. That has now been canceled due to COVID-19. I was excited because our presentation was not only going to be about the lean transformation at UPF, it was going to be about just how hard it is to begin a transformation at all.

When looking at the UPF team’s incredible continuous improvement story (model line productivity up 40%, all productivity up 15%, warrantee cost down 40%), Andrew and I thought it would be helpful to be upfront about the challenges. Team members had to learn to think differently about problem solving. We also wanted to share the key characteristics that any organization needs to have to begin lean work. Now that we aren’t presenting in April—LEI is still offering a virtual summit, I will keep you posted if we are presenting—I truly can’t think of a better time for leaders and teams to start thinking about these characteristics more deeply. There is no question your businesses will need to develop these traits to face the challenges ahead.

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Let’s take a closer look at the four characteristics Andrew and I identified to help lean leaders and lean managers:

Knowledge: What kind of knowledge is most important in times like these? You need to know your situation, know your customers, and know all of your options. Developing a clear understanding of all of these things is the lean thinking that helped the Toyota Production System thrive in extremely difficult situations. When in doubt, collect as much information as you can.

Grit: Grit is hard to define, so how I will sum it up? You will get it wrong! That’s okay because failing is how we learn. Wherever you are focusing your lean learning or problem-solving efforts, keep at it and have the discipline to go through the Plan, Do, Check, Act/Adjust cycle. Failure to get the desired result is okay; failure to learn is not. And of course, failure to act on what you have learned is pure waste!

Outrage: When you know your organization can be better, a sense of (healthy) outrage is often the fuel that drives you and your team members into action. Embrace it, share it (by expressing your desire to do things differently, not blaming people), and work with it to create a new reality. Remember it is the processes that need to be fixed not the people.

Lastly, what do we mean by “bias for action?” Simply put, you need to do more than talk about “instituting change”; you need to actually do it and do it quickly! And most often, this will mean learning by doing.

These are tough times, but the truth is, the work of creating value and delivering it to customers (in the midst of unpredictable externalities) was never easy. If you need to talk about your current problem situation and how to work through it with knowledge, grit, outrage, and yes, a bias for action, let me know.

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