/The role of leadership in a lean journey

The role of leadership in a lean journey

INTERVIEW – What does “leading through incompetence” mean? Peter Willats discusses the role of leadership in a lean management system and the evolution of lean thinking.

Interviewee: Peter Willats, independent consultant and investor

Planet Lean: During a recent presentation you said that managers build the system, and operators operate it. But then why do we often end up blaming the operators for faults that are in fact inherent to the system? Also, isn’t there a risk that this idea can be perceived as being in conflict with one of lean’s fundamental remits, that the operator is to be empowered?

Peter Willats: A lot of the time managers don’t design the system in enough detail. It’s often too high level, or too incomplete. In a lot of businesses, this leads to confusion and leaves room for interpretation at the front line. Managers will not assume responsibility for a system they haven’t built. This is a striking example of the difference between a structured organization and one that isn’t. We must believe one of the fundamentals of quality insurance: if you define the process you will be able to determine the output. Work standards are designed to deliver a product at a certain time and to a certain quality, and working according to the standards is everybody’s duty. Now, to your second question. My primary responsibility as an operator may be to operate the system, but lean thinking also gives me an opportunity to make observations and suggest corrections to improve the standard. However, it is important that this remains within the scope of gearing my work towards the work standard set by the system. A well-operated system is critical to delivering to customer requirements, which is one of lean’s fundamental purposes.

PL: Another interesting concept you shared in that occasion was the idea of “leading through incompetence” – can you tell us a little bit about it?

PW: With most of the examples we use to support our understanding of lean, we are actually looking at an end product. These examples can inspire us, but they are not giving us any information on the steps that were necessary in order to get to that end product. Most of the time, the people in senior positions we look to started by learning the routines at the base, during their time on the line or as young engineers. They then adapted their routines and habits to their managerial work. But in companies embarking on a lean transformation, managers do not have that formative experience that they carry with them. The question here is: how do we actually go about leading something we don’t know how to do? It’s challenging, and it’s an issue worth exploring. Hopefully it will lead to something more constructive than hiring a consultant. Management has to determine their level of readiness, and if the conditions are there take a bold step towards something they don’t know the outcome of. It’s the leap of faith. If you think it’s worth giving the basic principles a go, spend time doing it internally in a small, containable attempt. You need to learn how the principles apply yourself, which means you are not taking too many risks or depending on external references (a common problem when looking at, for example, benchmarks while testing one’s own beliefs).

PL: So what are the factors without which I have no hope to succeed?

PW: There are only two things I’ve found to be helpful: personal involvement and, in the medium term, aligning your lean activities with achieving operational results. If lean is not linked to the company’s budget, people will get tired of it and when things get tough they will lose interest. Within a year, I need to get the people to say, ‘We are doing this because it helps achieve our budget goals.’

PL: If a company has lots of money to spend on lean, you suggest it should “give it away to the poor”. What do you mean by that?

PW: When you are a manager and have money to spend, it is just a matter of time before somebody comes to you and asks you to buy a new machine, or new software. A lean manager should then ask what alternatives were explored, what the current utilization is and how that can be improved. If you have funds, there will always be the temptation to throw money at the problem. If you don’t have any, you’ll need to learn to rely on what you have.

PL: You started the Kaizen Institute in 1990 with Masaaki Imai with the aim to help to bring lean thinking from Japan to the rest of the world. Are you happy with your contribution?

PW: I am. During the years that I spent with the Kaizen Institute, we facilitated a geographic expansion and, in two steps, we helped with the introduction of lean to the automotive industry and then with its expansion beyond the automotive industry. I have to say that one of the things that kept the lean movement going over the years was the Lean Thinking book. If you think back to the middle of the 1990s, when the book came out, there was a severe risk that lean would have become one of many passing waves. There have been many, from BPR to six sigma. Without the book, lean would have just come and gone. Interestingly, through the efforts of LEI, lean has become a common way to do business.

PL: Do you think that’s what other methodologies lacked?

PW: Some of them tend to become a little cultish, because they somehow ended up being controlled by an individual or an institution. They became too focused on one person. The good thing about lean is that, despite it being focused heavily on Jim Womack, Dan Jones, John Shook, etc. it was anchored to a non-commercial goal. Nobody has made their money with it and flown off into the sunset. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for what I call “high six sigma”, or the one with a capital “s”, which is focused on truly using statistical tools to reduce variability. In its simplified, degenerate form, however, it is not a lot more than structured projects, green belts and using DMAIC. This happens when people use it without its statistical background. The fact is that a similar risk applies to lean as well. The big problem with lean is that 90% of what has been done is lean-light. And lean-light is as ineffective as six sigma in small letters. Unfortunately, lean is not a self-improving process. There are a lot of times when it can turn into the trivial. The fact – and Jim Womack said the same – that there is not a second Toyota is a pretty big flaw. We have just not been able to reproduce that kind of success. A tiny number of people have been able to get somewhere near it, but the vast majority have only just scratched the surface.

PL: What have you learned about consulting and helping organizations over the years?

PW: Most of the traditional consulting economics are incompatible with helping people do lean. They will have consultants try to do it at a faster pace that makes sense to the client organization. They drive them to try to create an impact faster than they should. I should also say that the consultants should be able to tell their clients, “Not yet” or “Let’s stop for a while.” You can’t always say yes, because once you do, the burden of delivery falls onto you rather than the client. But, as we know, the responsibility must lie with the client. That’s the reason why many consultants are not successful.

PL: Lean has expanded to many areas and sectors over the years. What should the next step be for the lean movement?

PW: There is still a very strong focus on manufacturing and supply chain, and still a huge amount of work to be done in product development, just to name one area. Another almost entirely untouched world is the application of lean to unique events. We know very little about tools and technique for one-time events, like building a building (lean construction is starting to get there) or product launches. Some people are doing interesting work in that area, whether they are doing any kind of lean work or not. And let us not forget about lean for managers. The first step is normally applying it in those areas where there is high repetition, but the fact is that a lot of managerial work is not repetitive. So, lots to explore still!


Peter Willats photograph

 Peter Willats has worked with lean since the 1980s, first as he sat on the board of GKN automotive, a supplier to all of the Japanese OEMs, and later on when he started the Kaizen Institute in Europe with Masaaki Imai and subsequently worked at McKinsey&Co as Director of the Manufacturing Practice. Today Peter is an independent consultant and investor.