Tag Archive | Lean principles

Lean and empowerment: Delegation vs Abdication



Some days ago I was at a meeting where we were discussing how to improve a process. The process team members and the team leader said that they felt ultimately responsible [sic] of the process performance and requested more authority to test their ideas and do changes. This proposal is very well aligned with Lean principles like:

  1. Involve front line in improving their work
  2. Promote learning through repeated practice in solving problems

So we scheduled a meeting to present the idea to the area director and define how to give the team more freedom to try things and learn. To our surprise (well, not really), the area director refused to do so. Her arguments were “I want to keep control because I’m ok with delegating, but not with abdicating”. Off with their heads!

This situation is easy to find. Not every manager is ready to move from the classic thinking trio: “command and control” + “experts own improvement” + “compliance at any cost” to Lean management principles. The presence of these ideas is a very good predictor of problems during a Lean transformation, so please beware if you hear things like “control”, “this is too risky”, “do whatever it takes” or anything similar.

However, the area director was right in some way. How? Managers have to delegate and stop telling people what to do. Telling people what to do takes away responsibility from the person. But managers still have a job in Lean:

  • Ask questions that provoke the right thinking
  • Understand problems by observing the process (at the gemba)
  • Challenge, enable and remove obstacles for workers while they are solving problems

The right move 2.png

In other words, “abdicating” in the sense of disappearing from the gemba, asking nothing, hiring Lean experts and asking them to do the improvement work for you, ignoring the process, avoiding coaching, etc… IS NOT AN OPTION. If we use the classic RACI matrix, managers must move from Responsible (do everything, take all decisions) to Accountable (make sure things happen, help those doing the job). Follow this Wikipedia link to the RACI matrix for more information (link here).

And now, a very important final warning:


Middle managers are a common source of problems during Lean transformations. They are typically hard to convince and, when they try Lean, it is not unusual to see them go back to classic thinking after some days / weeks / months. Why? It’s a “delegation” problem.

Lean transformations usually start at the gemba: operators, analysts, technicians… those people whose boss is a middle manager. Middle managers learn how to empower their people and give them freedom to try and learn. But the boss of a middle manager is a director, who has never been exposed to Lean and still uses the classic “command and control” style. Long story short: the middle manager feels he has lost power/influence/capacity because decisions are taken either by his people or his boss. He might think he is not useful anymore and might be fired. This situation is extremely dangerous for the Lean transformation.

That’s why education and communication are so important in Lean. Directors must be trained in Lean and know what to expect. Managers must have the opportunity to explain the Lean transformation at their area to their bosses and the new way a great manager looks like with Lean. This is REALLY critical for Lean success.

Lean Principle #7: Lead by Example

Lead by example

I liked very much this article by Justin Bariso at http://www.inc.com because it highlights the most important Lean leadership principle: Lead by example. The “Do what I say, not what I do” motto has never been valid, and it will be a total killer when applying Lean or any other continuous improvement methodology.

Lead by example is easy to say and difficult to do. I’ve seen this error happen over and over, but there are certain situations when it is extremely common:

  • Starting a Lean transformation: Some think Lean can happen even if the leader is not present. This is wrong. No Leader, no Lean.
  • Creating a learning culture: When problems arise and Lean looks like a bad decision, it is easy to look for someone to blame. Leaders must be the first who keep calm, promote real problem solving and avoid witch-hunts.
  • Involving others: If, as a leader, you take all important decisions, how will you teach your people to trust and cooperate with others? Delegate, create an environment where testing is welcome and focus more in “how can I help?” and less in “how can I control?”
  • Outsourcing Lean work: Lean might be considered as something an external consultant can do for you with your team. Wrong. Consultants share knowledge, leaders make change happen.

A final thought:

Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It’s the only thing.

Albert Schweizer

Lean principle #6: The right speed


One frequent question when working with Lean is “are we going too fast/too slow”? Changing is always uncomfortable and it is normal to question yourself if things are going as they are supposed to be. Well, speed matters in Lean but, as usual, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer here. Each situation is different and needs different approaches, so what to do? Let’s see the problem from its 2 sides:

  • The risks if change goes too slow: people feel that problems are not solved, people feel their work is not bearing fruit, higher probability of rumors, higher probability of “I told you it wouldn’t work” and other similar sentences. In summary, Lean loses momentum and looks like “the improvement initiative of the month”
  • The risks if change goes too fast: people feel that things are changed with too little analysis, risk looks is higher, there is a higher feeling on improvisation, the valuable ideas of those who don’t speak up easily (introverts, new employees…) may be lost. In summary, Lean looks like something imposed from top management.

Yes, practicing Lean might be complicated. My proposal is to move “as fast as possible”. Start slowly to make sure a) everybody is on board and b) the first “projects” are a success. Then increase speed incrementally. When everybody has been exposed to the cultural part of Lean (we all know people will be respected, lay-offs will be the last option, speaking up is safe…), it is better to go a little bit too fast than a little bit too slow because speed will help create quicker PDCA cycles and learning happens (obviously) also quicker. Change will be evident and everybody will feel it. Always get people’s feedback: the sweet spot is where people feel challenged without being scared.

Lean Speed

Lean is like riding a bike: moving either too slow or too fast will make you hit the ground. Start slowly and increase risk and speed as you gain experience.



Root cause analysis Rule #3


This week I’ve seen a problem that happens (sadly) all the time.

Imagine a company / department / team that has a problem (e. g. equipment failure that could impact the product quality). People who work at the work center and their immediate supervision meet at the gemba and agree how to investigate the problem. Some ask their managers if it is ok if they investigate, management says “of course, we believe in people, you are the experts, we trust you”. The team thinks, develops ideas, tests, learns together (e.g. “what are the equipment failure modes?”, “how could we detect them?”, “how can we know is this error has happened?”, “how can we prove our hypothesis right or wrong?”, “how can we evaluate if the product is still good?”). They discover the root cause of the problem and develop an action plan to avoid it in the future.

They call a meeting to share their learning with the site directors and then….. shit happened. I’ll list the sad list of problems:

  • Directors came to the meeting with their own root cause analysis (of course, none of them had been at the work center or had spoken with any of the workers). It was a nice PowerPoint Ishikawa.
  • Directors developed their own action plan. It was a wonderful MS Project file.
  • The first time a team member talked at the meeting was 15 minutes after the meeting had started.
  • The team’s improvement ideas were ignored. No director asked about their analysis or improvement action plan. The team had spent more than 20 hours in 2 days doing their investigation.
  • Most of the meeting time was used by management to show why their ideas were great. 2 team members tried to talk and make a point about their ideas, but they were ignored. The team stayed in silence the rest of the meeting.
  • One director finished the meeting asking: “But, what do you think about this?” Another one said she was very happy to see the team working together. Nobody else said a word.
  • When leaving the meeting, one worker said “I’ve learned something. Never think by yourself.”

Meeting minutes:

always right 2

Director actions were implemented and the problem happened again 3 days afterwards.

This story is an example of one of the most important questions about problem solving: “what is the role of management in problem solving?” The tricky part is to see the difference between “supporting” and “doing somebody else’s job”. Remember rule #3: Problems must be solved by those who do the job. How can we do this? Let’s listen to the experts:

Management must move from “telling what to do” to “asking questions that provoke the right thinking”. Telling people what to do takes away responsibility from the person. Management main goals are a) find and frame problems by observing (at the gemba) front line learning and b) challenge, enable and remove obstacles for front line while they are solving problems.

Daniel T. Jones, Lean Conference 2014

The most important question from the management side is “What are your problems?” Management work is not to solve problems by themselves, but to develop problem solvers. Otherwise, you’ll become a manager like this:


Lean principle #5: Seek perfection


Lean looks for the perfect process: perfect value with no waste. That’s why “seek perfection” is one of the lean principles defined by the Lean Enterprise Institute (learn more here). Perfection means providing customers with a safe product (Health), of high value (Quality), on time and in the right quantity (Delivery) and affordable (Cost). Additionally, the process must develop problem solvers who improve the product and increase value (People) and take care of the community and the environment (Morale)

Some might say that aiming for perfection but thinking that improvement is a never-ending journey is a contradiction. Is it possible to believe in the Lean Principle #4: Improvement is a cycle (the “PDCA” principle) and pursuing perfection at the same time? Yes!

There are 2 reasons why perfection and trial-and-error philosophies are compatible:

  1. Perfection is a never ending journey: The perfect use of resources is theoretically impossible (link). We can get better and better but reducing waste to zero would need an immense amount of resources (which is waste itself). Using math terms, improvement tends asymptotically to perfection.
  2. Customer needs change over time: In other words, customers raise the bar constantly and request new features and products. Even if the perfect process was possible, we need to change direction and adapt constantly to the new definition of good.

In summary, Lean is about adapting processes to customer needs, all the time, no matter how quick they change. The better one company adapts to customers and the environment, the more successful it will be.

Picture by: http://joyreactor.com/post/405771

Lean principle #4: Improvement is a cycle

“The company is starting a global Lean manufacturing project”. It is easy to hear statements like that because many people believe that Lean is something that starts, moves on and finally ends. In other words, they think Lean is a project. This probably happens because the first contact with Lean for most people is at kaizen events that end up with a new Lean tool in place, but without any further explanation about why the tool is important and how it fits in the cultural and methodological transformation of the company. It is easy to assume that Lean is a set of fancy tools. Well, Lean is not a project or a set of tools. Yes, you will do projects and use tools as part of a Lean transformation (in fact you will do many projects and use many tools), but the point here is that:

  • Lean work is cyclic. It is a series of experiments based on Plan-Do-Check-Act. Lean is not a line, it is a circle.
  • Lean work never ends. There is a starting point but no end point. Once you are Lean, you are Lean forever.

Improvement is a cycle

It takes some time to assume the idea, but operational excellence is a journey without end. Please, don’t confuse “without end” with “without goal” because Lean goal is very clear: maximize customer value. And this goal is the main reason that makes Lean endless:

  • The definition of “value” changes over time. What is acceptable today may be unacceptable tomorrow. What is a delighter today may be just a satisfier tomorrow and a dissatisfier in the near future. Think in features like air conditioning in cars or internet access in mobile phones. The Kano model is one of the available theories to explain customer satisfaction and innovation (picture from “Kano Model, Wikipedia“)


  • Operation systems are not perfect and eliminating waste completely is probably impossible.
  • The environment is complex and difficult to model. That’s why trial and error is the most effective way to test solutions and find improvement actions. Trial and error, however, produce wrong results many times that must be analyzed and corrected

Lean transforms organizations to make them most value oriented and create a learning culture. Lean is a never-ending improvement cycle.

Lean principle #3: Product or problems


One of the biggest differences between Lean management and classical management is the way they define success. Classical management focuses on results. Its motto is “do whatever it takes to hit the numbers”. The only acceptable outcome from a process is the product or service it is supposed to provide. This is apparently ok (who likes failure?), but hides a great problem: if you only care about results, you will only get results. This is worse than you think. First, nobody will perform over the standard (if you want 1000 parts/ hour, why should I give you more?) and second, everybody will do anything possible to get the results, which includes cheating and hiding problems.

Lean manufacturing accepts 2 types of outcomes from the process: product or problems. “Product” has a more strict meaning than in classical management: it’s not only about the number, but also about how you get it. You must follow the standard and comply with Morale, Health, Quality, Delivery and Cost targets. Any deviation from any of them is a “problem” that must be understood and solved. “Problems” are not only accepted but welcome.

Lean vs Clasical management

Does this mean that Lean does not care about profit or results? Absolutely not. Lean is probably the most result-oriented management system ever designed. However, Lean practitioners know this: it is ok to sacrifice the short-term to protect the long-term. It is ok to spend time and money finding problems to be more competitive in the future. It is ok to stop production and put in place improvement solutions to be more effective tomorrow. Lean is, fundamentally, a learning system.