/Michael Ballé on last week’s Lean Summit in Lyon
lean summit lyon

Michael Ballé on last week’s Lean Summit in Lyon

lean summit lyonINTERVIEW – Last week’s Lean Summit in Lyon was a great success. We asked Michael Ballé of the Institut Lean France why that was, what the key takeaways were, and what was new in this edition.

Interviewee: Michael Ballé, co-founder, Institut Lean France

Planet Lean: You’ve just had a very successful lean summit in Lyon, France – what are your key takeaways from the event?

Michael Ballé: The summit didn’t showcase lean as a method, but the CEOs or COOs who use lean as their strategy. In a sense, it was not about lean as an object, but about the levels of performance leaders achieved thanks to lean and how they did it. This created a strong and direct relationship with the audience, and a palpable feeling of excitement in the auditorium – you could literally feel the buzz. We also had a few more traditional sessions, with presentations on big companies’ lean programs, and it was interesting to see how people seemed less engaged.

PL: Is it all about the “lean heroes” then?

MB: Certainly, but it is also about how these leaders described their lean efforts. They didn’t talk about their lean journey or how they tried to change the lean culture of their organizations. They were very clear about the business problems they encountered and how the lean tools helped them to tackle them together with their employees.

For instance, we were fortunate to hear the story of Pierre Vareille, currently the CEO of Constellium, a €5bn company he turned around and led to the Wall Street stock exchange. This is his third large-scale turnaround using lean and he showed how the same lean framework (in terms of Safety, Quality, Delivery, Cost indicators) and basic tools helped him to focus on solving very different business problems: radically improving productivity in a company with high manual work content and many sites in high-cost countries; improving delivery speed in an electronics components corporation spread across all continents (for instance, taking the decision of transporting products via air rather than by sea); and, completely different again, working on people engagement and suggestions in his latest transformation, in a company that makes aluminum material and where one machine can cost up to a €1bn. Same lean approach, very different business problems.

At the other end of the spectrum, Benoît Charles-Lavauzelle, the young CEO of Theodo – a fast growing IT startup (x10 turnover in four years) – showed how he focused on solving each problem with customer satisfaction by interviewing customers every week and taking PDCA action on any response in which they scored less than 9 or 10 out of 10. He faced the thorny problem of having to fuel the growth of his company by hiring more and more talented engineers at an incredibly fast rate. Lean thinking led Benoît to create a robust hiring process where every mishap is handled using PDCA, in order to safely scale the company. Again, very different business challenges, and very innovative answers built with the people themselves and using a learning-by-doing approach.

I believe the business world is slowly waking up to the fact that you might not fix a culture, but that if you focus on your business, the rest will follow. Indeed, the summit’s presentations definitely moved away from “lean culture” and focused more on hands-on leaders who faced up to their business problems at the gemba and solved them through kaizen, with their employees, step by step.

PL: Any memorable moments during the summit?

MB: When Pierre Vareille said that lean isn’t for everyone and that he doesn’t believe that any more than 50% of his managers will ever get it – you could hear the audience gasp. He forcefully made the point that lean is, first of all, about respecting the value-creating employees, that this is the role of management and that any manager who doesn’t get it or isn’t able to adapt to this way of working would never succeed in his organization (and that eventually he or she would be encouraged to go and manage elsewhere). Saying this to a roomful of managers and lean champions had quite the effect, as you can imagine, but if you think about it, you can see his point: the priority is the gemba employees.

There was also a heated discussion between two CEOs presenting about how they teach lean basics to other CEOs at the Centre Des Jeunes Dirigeants and a CEO in the audience who argued that she had so much work to do as CEO that she had to delegate lean to her production manager and could not spend so much time on lean. This was an interesting moment, given the opening question of the summit: “Do you use lean as an optimization tool part of your strategy or as your full business strategy?”

Dan Jones also captivated the audience with his exploration of lean in a digital world. People kept referring back to his talk and were enthused by the fact that one of the founders of the lean movement is still looking at the future, thinking well ahead of the rest of us, and leading the movement in new directions – definitely a wow moment.

PL: Did you try anything innovative during this summit?

MB: We always have to be careful, given our limited resources (we are a not-for-profit), but we did try a couple of new things: Anne-Lise Seltzer and Sophie Lasserre, for example, organized a “world café” session that worked tremendously well and that we’ll definitely have again in our future events.

We’re also very grateful to Kelly Singer, who had a stand where she presented her breakthrough work on lean and green, which initiated a lot of new discussions. At Institut Lean France, we strongly believe the lean movement is behind the curve in this specific field, particularly considering the progress Toyota has made on this front. It was wonderful to finally get some traction and see how favorably the audience responded.

PL: What is the most valuable lesson learned from this summit?

MB: As we discussed with Dan Jones, I think it is becoming clearer that lean is an educational program, a way to grow the human capital in the company by embedding learning within daily activities, and thus finding productivity (and prosperity) through the better way people organize themselves (labor productivity) and the smarter ways in which they use new technologies (capital productivity). I believe we all see this far more clearly now.

But what really strikes me is how the lean system works both ways: lean tools on the gemba and rigorous schedule of gemba visits educated the leaders as well. They all described how, as a result of visiting the gemba time and time again, they learned what was really going on and how to make better business decisions, delivering higher performance and visible financial results. Learning by doing works at the top of the company, too, and it influences policy far more than we ever thought.

The takeaway for us at ILF is that we need to continue to grow our community around business leaders who are committed to using lean as their main strategy. The high Net Promoter Score we’ve achieved with this event tells us this is the right way to go. We are already thinking about whom we might invite to speak at our next summit in two years’ time. Stay tuned!


Michael Ballé is co-founder of the Institut Lean France. An associate researcher at Telecom ParisTech, he holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. Michael is a best-selling author and an engaging speaker, and managing partner of ESG Consultants. He also works as a lean executive coach in various fields, from manufacturing to engineering, services to healthcare.