Womack's Yokoten By: Jim Womack

Jim Womack on creating the social basis for lean management

social basis for lean managementWOMACK’S YOKOTEN – The author looks at hoshin planning, A3 thinking and daily management as the three key elements of a lean management system, and highlights the related behaviors that will allow lean to thrive.

Words: Jim Womack, Founder and Senior Advisor, Lean Enterprise Institute

Picture credit: David Ortega Baglietto / Shutterstock.com

When I started the Lean Enterprise Institute twenty years ago this summer, things went swimmingly until I added our third employee. Employee Number Two and I had had an easy time talking about problems and what do about them. But when Employee Number Three arrived to what suddenly became a two-department organization (operations and conferences), I immediately found that each wanted to talk to me one-on-one about problems involving both departments. Neither had a means to engage the other – to work together – in a constructive conversation about the nature of the problem and the best way to address it without involving me.

I knew from twenty previous years of experience managing large, global projects at MIT that this was the way of the world. And I could imagine that our management problems would grow steadily as we scaled our activities and boxes were added to our organizational chart. More and more problems and conflicts were certain to land on my desk. So, I started thinking about the elements of a lean management system that could create a social basis for jointly discussing problems and seizing opportunities so everyone could work together at the right level of the organization on the best countermeasures and initiatives to try.

Over time, LEI settled on three key elements for this system: hoshin planning for big leaps in performance (engaging every organizational level from top to bottom), A3 analysis (usually incorporating value stream maps) for steady improvement at every level of the organization, and daily management to create and sustain basic stability. (These have worked well. But, of course, they are always subject to annual evaluation and improvement. Nothing is perfect.)

In recent years, we have made steady progress in our campaign to popularize the three elements of lean management across the Lean Community. I hoped (indeed, assumed) that these methods on their own would create the social basis for constructive conversations about sustaining and improving performance in every part of every organization. But as I walk through many organizations across the world, what I commonly see is something quite different.

  • Hoshin plans are developed at the top, with no feedback from lower levels about the resources available or the conflicts between the hoshin plans and the pre-existing budgeting and management performance systems with their KPIs. This means asking lower-level managers to do what they are already doing and then taking on additional initiatives without additional resources, often at cross-purposes with other KPIs and without agreement with their colleagues across the organization about what support and cooperation they will need. Not surprisingly, strategy deployment initiatives that seem very impressive at first glance – all those visual boards and obeya rooms! – are usually failing to complete and sustain their hoshin.
  • A3s are being written by starting with the solution most comfortable for the author and working backwards to justify the preferred countermeasures. (Remember Porter in John Shook’s Managing to Learn as he starts his first A3 by jumping to solutions.) The many folks touching problems aren’t being engaged or, even worse, feel they are not being respected when they are consulted. The proposed countermeasures usually remain distant future possibilities rather than newly achieved realities.
  • Daily management is being conducted with status boards designed by continuous improvement (CI) or operational excellence (OpEx) groups and mournfully observed by front-line teams every morning to assess “red” and “green” performance. But there is no mechanism for real-time problem resolution by front-line employees working with their managers and by the managers touching a shared problem working together to convert red to green and maintain basic stability. This practice is the equivalent of building a bigger, brighter scoreboard so a losing team can see better how far behind it is in the game.

As I’ve reflected on this situation I have never wavered in my belief that hoshin planning, A3 analysis, and daily management are the essential tools for lean management. And I’m convinced that successfully deploying them can bring everyone together, just as the conductor brings all of the parts together in the orchestra or chorus. But I have increasingly realized that these methods are being deployed without attention to the social context and management mindsets that can make them effective. So what have I learned about creating a social context and management beliefs that can bring people together?

  • With regards to hoshin planning: Top-level management must ask lower-level managers about their specific plans (usually in the form of A3s) for achieving the hoshin and about what resources they will need from the top level and from managers in other parts of the organization in order to succeed. Doing this usually leads to the conclusion that there are insufficient resources to achieve more than a few of the desirable hoshin objectives and the need to de-select down to the critical few that can and must be achieved. This is hard. But the failure to ask critical questions about the method for deployment and to be realistic about resources is the key cause of hoshin failure. At the same time, top-level management needs to look carefully at the pre-existing budgeting system and key performance indicators (KPIs) to eliminate any contradictions. This means “making whole” rather than punishing the manager who does the right thing to achieve the key hoshin. (See my column Metrics: Mindless or Mindful? for a nice example of what happens when this need is ignored.)
  • With regards to A3 analysis: The key breakthrough is to instill the idea that A3s are written by a responsible person (often with no authority over those touching the problem) who deeply engages with everyone across the organization with relevant information about the problem. This must be accompanied by a second concept: that openly sharing problems with the A3 author is the most important contribution employees can make to organizational success. And again, everyone must be made whole: Revealing a problem in order to be punished is something no employee will do twice.
  • With regards to daily management: The key breakthrough is to prevent the perfect from being the enemy of the good. As Jim Lancaster describes vividly in his The Work of Management, the natural inclination of every CI and OpEx group is to identify all of the problems in a process, perform Pareto analysis, develop detailed plans for counter-measuring the most important ones, and… lose the confidence and interest of the people actually doing the work when the same problems appear on management boards for extended periods. What’s needed instead is immediate visibility of every problem as it occurs and immediate action by front-line managers and work teams to devise a temporary countermeasure to restore performance to its traditional level. Doing this creates the time for in-depth root cause analysis as appropriate.

The theme of each of these approaches is to make someone responsible for leading the analysis, to take rapid and achievable action, and to make everyone whole. Doing this creates the reassuring social context that keeps every employee and manager focused on maintaining stability and moving performance steadily upward over time, knowing that they are respected for their knowledge and abilities and are protected from contradictory and impossible demands.

But wait: What about the earnest CI and OpEx team members who must feel maligned by the proceeding discussion (and who are probably the great bulk of readers?!) What is their role in a properly designed lean management system? My answer is that instead of solving problems directly, as most do today, they need to teach line managers how to develop hoshin plans, how to write good A3s, and how to perform daily management with rapid response to every problem. To do this they will probably need to demonstrate each of these methods the first time and then coach line managers as they try to perform these activities on their own. Over time staff teams need to develop better managers who can countermeasure most of the problems they encounter rather than delegating them to OpEx teams. Doing this creates the final element in a complete lean management system to bring everyone together.


Jim Womack photograph

Management expert James P. Womack, is the founder and senior advisor to the Lean Enterprise Institute. The intellectual basis for the Cambridge, MA-based Institute is described in a series of books and articles co-authored by Jim himself and Daniel Jones over the past 25 years. During the period 1975-1991, he was a full-time research scientist at MIT directing a series of comparative studies of world manufacturing practices. As research director of MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program, Jim led the research team that coined the term “lean production” to describe Toyota’s business system. He served as LEI’s chairman and CEO from 1997 until 2010 when he was succeeded by John Shook.

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