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A lesson in Lean: How to train senior executives


I recently delivered a Lean introduction seminar to a group of senior executives, and I’d like to share some of my observations from this experience.

The training was pretty simple, almost a white belt level. The executives got a general introduction to the tools, played a Lean game and then we finished with their role in change management.

Introduction to the tools

I kept the presentation of the tools pretty high level so as not to bog them down in operational procedure. I needed them to understand that while 20 percent of Lean’s success was from the tools, 80 percent was from the culture and their management. They seemed to understand the importance of the tools and of their contribution.
I covered the basics:

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• I introduced the concepts of flow and waste, and used the analogy of the drive home to really make the flow point. I asked if they wanted to drive home without the use of brakes or if they wanted to always be stopping and starting or crawling along at a snail’s pace. We covered the seven-plus-one wastes with a little humourous vignette for each waste.

• I made sure that everyone knew when something was value adding or just waste. I made sure that they understood the three things about adding value from the customer’s perspective: The customer would be willing to pay for that good or service; that good or service must transform something; and it must be done right the first time.

• I covered 5S, mistake proofing and voice of the customer from the perspective of knowing when those tools have been implemented well. I finished with the importance of problem solving — to get at the right root cause and not just put a Band-Aid on the presenting problem.

The Lean game

I introduced the Lean Paper Airplane game. In this game, we had four operators, a plant manager, a timer, an inventory person and a customer. It was the responsibility of the four operators to “manufacture” 30 good paper airplanes in 10 minutes. The first operator had to fold the paper in half along its length. The next operator had to fold the nose section. The third and fourth operators had to fold the wings. The first operator had to ask the inventory person to get them three sheets at a time, once they ran out. The fourth operator had to pass three finished planes to the customer. The factory manager was allowed to cheer them on, but couldn’t do any work. The customer had to inspect the planes, look for defects and put the planes into an accept or reject pile. The timer was responsible for keeping track of the time that it took for a different coloured sheet to go from the inventory pile to the customer.

The point of the game isn’t how many airplanes they built; it’s using Lean tools and problem-solving skills to get at the root cause. I’ve seen some senior teams get it right away and others have taken up to four attempts at the game. What they learn, through a unique value stream that they look at from start to finish, is that the process is more difficult than they thought. They learn how the Lean tools actually work, as well as the folly of adding people, inspections or overhead. They learn about the value of eliminating a problem instead of just putting a Band-Aid on it.

Their role in change management

After we had a chat about what Lean really means to them and thrashed through their results from the paper airplane game, we talked about the role of senior leaders in change management. Basically, we talked about their roles in Hoshin Kanri:

• “Ho” means direction
• “Shin” means needle
• “Hoshin” means compass
• “Kan” means control or channelling
• “Ri” means reason or logic

I asked them about their key performance indicators (KPIs) and whether they’re measurable and actionable. I then introduced Hoshin Kanri by asking them whether the kaizen suggestions that they’re getting from the floor co-ordinate with their KPIs. If they do, that’s great. If they don’t quite align with their KPIs, they might deliver some feedback that will help them to do so. In this way, they’ll be playing toss or “catch ball” between the originator of the idea and the senior management team. I then pointed out that each level in the company should be doing this.

In this way, everyone remembers the big goals, but is free to determine how to best reach them.

It is precisely this back and forth that is behind the tremendous success Toyota enjoys. Senior management sets the stretch goals and people on the floor achieve those goals one small step at a time. Suppose that Toyota wants to reduce engine weight by half. It sets that as a stretch goal knowing that people will not achieve this all at once. They know, however, that they will reach that goal eventually. So they keep all suggestions on track, note the progress that’s being made and communicate the successes along the way.

I also told these senior managers to celebrate their successes. They should have regular hansei discussions (meet right after a kaizen and talk about it in the team). They should do something to celebrate their successes (and their failures); not something big, but something memorable. They should also have the yokoten discussions where they talk about their accomplishments.

In short, don’t feel that you’ve got to hit your senior management over the heads with everything that you know about Lean. They know that you know your subject matter. Give them some of the most popular tools — those that you’d use in 90 percent of all instances. Keep it light. Play a game, and then discuss how Lean applies to that game.

They won’t all get it right away, but be patient because they will by the time you’re done with them. Emphasize their roles in acquiring and keeping a sustainable Lean culture. Keep it about doing the kaizens and keep it a process, not a project!

This column originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.