/What influences our ability to sustain change?

What influences our ability to sustain change?

WOMACK’S YOKOTEN – The author visits a company that has sustained lean for a decade. In trying to understand how they did it, he finds how fundamentally the management system has changed.

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

Last September I attended the 25th anniversary celebration of the Toyota Supplier Support Center, now known as the Toyota Production System Support Center (but keeping the old acronym of TSSC). It was a grand affair at the new Toyota North American headquarters in Plano, Texas, with attendees including the Chairman of Toyota, Takeshi Uchiyamada (the first chief engineer for the Prius), and Nampachi Hayashi, the fabled and ferocious former head of Toyota’s Operations Management Consulting group in Japan from which TSSC is descended.

A number of TSSC’s client firms were represented, selected from the 338 organisations they had worked with up to that time. And there were many good stories to tell all around. However, I noted that while practically every model line project TSSC had launched at client firms had produced impressive results, the number of firms that had been able to spread their learning (yokoten) from this experiment across their entire organization – vertically to the top as well as horizontally from end to end – was much smaller. And the number of firms that had been able to spread and sustain their learning across the entire enterprise and continue to learn over many years was smaller still.

So I made a note to myself that I would try to visit some of the firms where lean thinking has endured for a decade or more and ask why. I recently started my journey at the Deublin Company in Waukegen, Illinois. Deublin’s 600 employees manufacture rotating unions for industrial machinery (which are really complicated to explain but you can Google them if you are interested) at facilities in the US, Germany, Italy, Brazil, and China.

As I walked through the shopfloor, two employees wanted to show me their latest improvements. Derek Stout, a team leader in Brassland (the original TSSC model line, for products fabricated mostly from brass), had just completed an exhaustive research project with his team on protective gloves, going far beyond the minimum requirements, to make sure none of the team members are ever cut by the sharp metal objects they manufacture. And Tom Snyder in the tool shop wanted to explain his new tool holders to speed up the already short changeovers in the cutting machines.

I was in a hurry, with lots to see, and the challenge was to get them to stop talking. There was always a bit more they wanted to show me and this kind of engagement can’t be faked. But energetic kaizen alone can’t create and sustain a lean transformation. I knew there must be much more.

At the end of my visit, my list of factors making Deublin different from most organizations attempting lean transformations is as follows:

  • Clear objective. As President Ron Kelner notes, “We didn’t want to be Toyota but to be the best Deublin we could be.” And that meant learning deeply from interacting with TSSC rather than simply copying tools and going through exercises such as creating a model line.
  • A humble senior management team. Ron and Bob Traettino, his project leader in the early days on the lean transformation, were willing to ask for help, learn by doing, and lead teams in endless rounds of PDCA to find the methods that worked best for Deublin.
  • Continuity in ownership. Don Deubler, the chairman, is the second generation of family ownership over more than 70 years and, at 71, the person making plans for more continuity in the next generation of family ownership. Deublin has grown steadily, sometimes by acquisition, but only at a rate that can sustain the culture.
  • Respect for people. The Deubler family takes the long view and has been careful to retain cash from profits in order to sail a steady course through economic downturns and industry disruptions. In the Great Recession in 2009, Deublin experienced a large drop in sales but kept employees on board. I believe that Deublin’s intent is to be the “lean employer” that I talked about in my April column and many of the employees I met felt that the family owners are truly committed to protecting them as long as they participate energetically in improvement.
  • Continuity in management. President Ron Kelner has been in the job for 16 years with perhaps 5 to 7 years to go. In 2009, when we first met, Ron was what I call a “modern manager” with lots of energy to drive the organization through KPIs and ready to give a quick answer for any problem that emerged. However, he soon realized that a different management style was needed to support the new technical methods TSSC was introducing. He sought help from a number of sources, including joining the Executive Learning Group at LEI led by Dave LaHote. Today Ron is a master of A3 analysis and carefully asks questions of his managers rather than giving answers as he steers a steady course toward Deublin’s North Star.
  • A relentless pragmatism and aversion to dogma. The Deublin team has been engaged for 10 years in trying endless experiments – using PDCA in the context of A3 – as they search for better approaches. This has meant looking outside the company but not a slavish adoption of “lean” methods without question. (Indeed, they have even rejected a few suggestions of mine!) The Deublin Performance System (DPS) that has emerged is unique to the needs of Deublin.

These factors are all important and often lacking in firms I visit. But I believe that the truly critical element of the Deublin transformation has been the effort to transform the management system to develop the capability of every employee. My hypothesis, after listening to shopfloor workers, team leaders, mid-level managers, department heads and the President, is that Deublin has developed a management system that is actually fulfilling to work in. Everyone gets immediate feedback on performance, everyone gets help in trying to eliminate struggles with the work, and everyone gets a role in the improvement of their work. As a result, everyone wants to continue to improve the system.

This thought came into focus as I visited the DPS team room. This team was originally established at the suggestion of TSSC to assist in the transformation of all of Deublin’s manufacturing operations to model lines with cells rather than the traditional process villages. Once this was done it continued as a centralized problem-solving team. But its role has gradually been expanded to a management and people development activity that teaches line managers how to analyze problems and experiment with solutions. Every new manager entering Deublin has a full-time assignment in the DPS office, learning by doing, as part of their development. And most of the managers present at the start of the lean transformation have been rotated through DPS full-time for extended periods. As Ron notes, “To advance in this company, managers need to go through DPS and the person who takes my place as President will come up through DPS.”

On the next phase of my walk it was fairly amazing to watch on the shopfloor as Rob O’Brien, the Vice President of Sales, took me through the A3 he developed during his six-month assignment in DPS to reduce the response time for andon pulls on the shopfloor. Then we went to the Sales Department to look at the boards for daily management of the sales process that Rob is developing with the sales team, based on what he learned in the DPS. When a classic salesman wants to talk about rapid response to the problems of the folks who actually make the product and also wants to talk about improving sales as a rigorous process, you know something fundamental has changed.

It was equally interesting to watch as Anton Petrou, the new Vice President of Engineering, showed me at the point of use one of the projects he has worked on during his DPS stint to simplify a difficult production process for production associates and to make it much more capable. Then we went to the Engineering Department to look at the boards for daily management of engineering projects, which have been divided into three value streams based on complexity. This on-going project – like all status boards at Deublin, they have been modified a number of times – was started by the current VP of Operations, Tony Sacramento, when he was VP of Engineering based on what he learned from watching the lean transformation of the factory floor. When Anton, the very serious design engineer, wants to talk to me about the realities of production and the challenge of re-engineering the engineering process, once again I know something fundamental has changed.

To sum up: Deublin has endured on the lean journey because the journey feels right and because employees feel they are being treated right by being continuously developed. (And, by the way, the journey has produced brilliant business results.) What more can we in the Lean Community hope for?


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.