/David Mann: why lean tools and lean culture must go together

David Mann: why lean tools and lean culture must go together

INTERVIEW – Planet Lean speaks with David Mann about the importance of combining the lean production and the lean management systems – the tools and the culture – to create sustainable results.

Interviewee: David Mann, organizational psychologist and author

Interview by: Roberto Priolo, Editor, Planet Lean

Roberto Priolo: You spent many years at Steelcase Inc creating a lean management system – what has your time there taught you?

David Mann: Steelcase is a furniture company characterized by extremely high variety in volumes and products. Our first experiments with lean were conducted in the 1990s with the help of Toyota experts – we and they wanted to see if the principles that applied so well to high volume/low mix manufacturing, like automotive, could work in other environments.

At Steelcase, we applied lean a complete end-to-end value stream at a time (rather than focusing on kaizen improvements). After study and design, the maintenance crew implemented the floor rearrangements over a three-day weekend, going from batch and queue production on Thursday to flow and pull lean production on Monday. It was dramatic!

Sadly, however, the day after the project team left all those well-designed lean applications fell apart. We learned that supervisors didn’t know how to manage in a lean environment and immediately went back to doing things the way they had always done them. We quickly realized that we had failed to teach leaders how to lead differently.

That’s how I learned that lean entails far more that just a bunch of tools, but also requires a fundamentally different approach to managing an organization. Steelcase changed its approach then, and focused on creating a lean management system to complement the lean production system already in place. This made results sustainable over time while also stimulating the development of a continuous improvement culture. Thorough trial and error over several years, we learned how to sustain lean’s successes. It was a very valuable experience for me.

RP: The synergy between the two systems, or the tools and the culture if you will, eventually led to you writing the book Creating a Lean Culture. Can you elaborate more on how the two systems reinforce one another?

DM: They are closely interdependent: the production system cannot be sustained without the management system, and without the gains of the production system the management system is meaningless and nothing more than bureaucracy.

The sequence of implementation of the two systems is also very important. Take kaizen as an example. Its benefits are experienced immediately among front line people and leaders in the production system. The value proposition in lean management is that it will sustain these gains. In this way, the management system is meaningful to the front lines. Without lean management, lean production is just another program whose gains sparkle but quickly disappear. So, we learned to immediately link lean production with lean management, so that the last step in a kaizen coincides with the first step in a management system – creating a visual control, which in turn allows you to expose problems and tackle them right away.

For this to happen, however, you need an accountability process in place: you are capturing problems with visual control that operators report to you (most of which you didn’t know about) and it is your obligation as a leader to tackle them. That’s what accountability is: cause analysis and corrective action, followed by the creation of leader standard work.

Management system practices sustain lean’s gains and drive to the surface further problems that are hidden by the problem that called for the lean implementation in the first place. But, if you can’t tell people why these changes are good for them you won’t go anywhere. If the only reason to improve is compliance, gains won’t be sustainable.

RP: In your book, you help organizational leaders transform their approach to managing, providing them with the best way to adopt lean practices. The goal is, as we discussed, the creation of a management system. With are there so many failed transformations, in your opinion?

DM: It’s almost like a reversed Pareto: 20% of the effort in a successful lean transformation is using the tools, while 80% is changing the way leaders think and their management practices.

The problem is that changing mindsets is difficult. The practices are in themselves pretty simple, but getting rid of ingrained habits is not. That’s why so many lean transformations fail. Traditional behaviors have brought managers success for their whole careers, and now we are asking them to change those behaviors. Unless these new behaviors (the management system behaviors) are consistently reinforced, people will quickly go back to the way they have always done things.

RP: At the upcoming Lean Management Conference in Poland, you will be talking about the difficulties of “translating” lean principles in non-manufacturing environments. There is now solid evidence that the methodology can work in any environment, but perhaps you can tell us what we should look out for as we try to apply lean to specialized work.

DM: Lean in manufacturing is in many ways fun, but to me lean applications in offices or technical-professional environments are more interesting because of the organizational complexity involved.

Think of the organizational structure in a factory. You have many functions (sourcing, logistics, engineering, and so on) and their responsibility lies in the hands of executives based somewhere else in the organization. But when you ask people in the factory who is in charge, nobody will hesitate to tell you that it is the plant manager. Singular ownership and responsibility for performance is clearly measurable in a manufacturing environment.

Conversely, an administrative value stream isn’t a function in itself, but a business process cutting across functions (it doesn’t appear on organizational charts, it has no owner, no budget, etc). Functions are often in competition with each other, and when you ask functional managers to do something different to serve a cross-functional business process, you get reluctance in response.

Step in the world of customers, however, and the value stream is all you will see, again cutting across all functions. Sadly, the only people from the value stream that customers have access to (in case of a problem, for example) are typically customer service representatives – and we all know how that normally goes. There is simply no leverage going back across functions.

If you are going to make administrative lean work in a way that changes the value that’s provided to the customer you have to deal with the process view of a functional organization (without changing any reporting relationships!) and build accountability into the process.

I am going to talk about this more in detail in one of my presentations in Poland, but in general what we find is that most of the changes in these process improvement activities happen between process boxes, which makes the emphasis on functional alignment very important.

RP: What is the role of communication in a lean transformation?

DM: You need to find ways to “sell” lean to people, which makes communication critical. When you ask people to do something differently, they immediately wonder: what is in it for me? Convincing them of the value of lean change comes from recognizing what their interest is and how doing something differently will serve that interest. How is that change or improvement going to make their day at work better?

Interestingly, that same value proposition is critical to engaging executives in lean, not by teaching them to be practitioners but by showing them how to master the assessment of the elements of the lean management system.

Teach leaders how to determine whether the management system is functioning, and they will know whether the production system is functioning as well. If I can go on a gemba walk and assess in 30 minutes whether the management system is in good shape or not, I know right away whether there are weaknesses are in the chain of command and whether my lean strategy is being implemented successfully.

David will be a speaker at this year’s Lean Management Conference in Wroclaw, Poland


For more information on the event and to reserve your spot, click here



David Mann is the author of Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions. In 15 years of lean experience at Steelcase, David developed and applied the concepts of a lean management system supporting over 40 lean manufacturing value stream transformations, and led an internal consulting team that supported over 100 successful lean enterprise business process value stream conversions. He established a lean consulting practice in 2005.