Difficulties with Changing to a Lean Culture: Part VII
The power of a child’s eyes
Where will the “human-side” of Lean hit you? Mike Thelen shares experiences with perceptions in Part
As is the case with any Lean implementation in a Traditional environment, culture (or more specifically
culture change) will be the most difficult obstacle to success. While a company can hire consultants,
develop work teams, and even begin Lean initiatives, if the company only "talks the talk", the initiative
soon becomes just that, talk.
Early in 2007, we hosted a “kaizen blitz” to focus on setup reduction in our newly formed product cell. As
one of numerous subsidiaries of a corporation, we were able to invite many people from beyond our four
walls to participate and share knowledge. The goal was two-fold, to help us see during the event and
help the participant’s sight when they returned home.
As part of this event, we also had the external consulting firm that we have developed a relationship with
over the last two years in-house. During the first day’s activities, one consultant was on the floor with the
operators of a gear hobbing machine. He asked why the process was being done a specific way. After
agonizing minutes of pondering and stammering, an operator admitted that it had simply “always been
done that way”. Does this sound familiar?
Later that day, the operator came to me and remarked that a kid probably would have wondered why he
did things that way, but he never takes the time to really look at what he does. He finally understood what
we mean when we say, “look at the process with a child’s eyes”.
At times, we observed operators walking over thirty feet multiple times during the setup of
a machine. The obvious “why” was why are the tools so far away? The operators often
explained that they don’t have enough room. Yet, with a new perspective we were able to
redesign the work area to provide necessary tools within three feet without losing any
perceived room. One team even utilized PVC plumbing, hose clamps and screws to
fabricate tool holders right at the point of use on the machine. Ingenuity exists at all
levels, if given the training, time and motivation to make improvements.
How often do you walk by something without questioning why it is? In a Sales
department, employees bring in desk lamps because the work area is too dark. It is causing eyestrain
and in extreme cases putting people to sleep. A guest touring the department observes that the majority
of fluorescent ceiling lights are burned out or the covers are horribly yellowed. No one ever looked up
when there were complaints about the lighting. When asked why, the response was that many years ago
the glare created by the lights made it difficult to see information on the old monochrome computer
monitors. However, new LCD panels had replaced those monitors quite some time ago.
An hourly, indirect employee spends hours of her week organizing an assembly schedule from a stack of
computer-generated reports. Approximately fifty percent of the product is currently manufactured in a cell
(a change from eighteen months prior). Her boss believes the cell is still using its section of the schedule.
No one asks why. Six months later, he comes to me and asks why the cell needs the report if we’re
“Lean”. I can’t explain, since I don’t believe they do. We “go and see”. The cell doesn’t use the sheet!
In ten minutes, we eliminate hours of weekly work for an employee in a department seeking more
resources. More importantly, we begin the process of generating a new report for the portion of assembly
that has not been through Lean yet. This new report is automatically generated, completely removing the
manual task from the hourly employee. As a side benefit, the report will be available for the production
manager who still requires a schedule (for the time being) immediately with only those line items he
needs to track.
So how do we use a child’s eyes?
Shigeo Shingo advised that the best time for creative thinking is shortly after you wake. When you are
rested and uninhibited, the opportunity to have an open mind is greater. Avoid judgmental thinking (such
as reading e-mail, reviewing financial numbers, etc) early in the day as it creates “tunnel vision” for the
Capturing ideas is not as difficult as we believe. We must simply take the time to think back. As children,
everything we see creates questions. Why is the sky blue, the grass green? Because we had no
preconceived notions and no fear of being ridiculed, we questioned everything. In order to gain a fresh
perspective on our day-to-day jobs, we simply need to start with asking why without fear.
While it is important for each of us to ask why, we must be given the freedom to do so. Leaders have to
stimulate creativity, not dampen it. Utilize brainstorming sessions where no idea is discounted. Involve a
cross-functional team where everyone is equal. Shingo also noted that people with diverse backgrounds
have different experiences. Not only does that provide unique ideas, but it can also provide expansion on
ideas. Studies have proven that teams with open discussion generate more ideas than individuals.
There must be time available for reflection too. As the operators learned in our kaizen mentioned above,
if my only thought is to perform a process and not to observe the process while asking why, I’ll never find
opportunities for improvement. There are two ideals that are constant in a Lean system, a “go and see”
approach to problems (Genchi Genbutsu) and constant reflection (Hansei).
Few single words are as powerful as “why”. Still, there is one critical thing to remember. If you aren’t part
of the solution, you are part of the problem. Asking why only is the starting point. You must be willing to
pursue the answer to why as well. Many suggestion boxes have this defect. When you are required to
present a problem, the possible solution and the impact of the solution (cost vs. benefit, but not
necessarily dollars!), you get to see the entire picture. Now you’ve become part of the solution.
Changing your culture from one of complaints to one of solutions is difficult, time-consuming and requires
your full attention. Even one failure to show respect for people, regardless of the number of successes,
will send your cultural change initiatives into a downward spiral. Fear not, though, for like all things, the
spiral can be reversed if handled respectfully and with follow-through. Just don’t ignore it in hopes that it
will go away!
In Shingo’s latest book, “Kaizen and The Art of Creative Thinking”, he dedicates an entire chapter to
methods and steps for idea generation. That chapter alone is justification for purchasing the book.
However, the entire text is truly valuable. He goes beyond theory and principles to provide actual
experiences in a simple, easy-to-read format. His ability to break through traditional perceptions and view
processes from “a child’s eyes”, regardless of the application, was fantastic.
There is no magic pill for Lean initiatives. The Lean process requires time, commitment, and
determination. Companies that cannot envision the long-term commitment to Lean, and only use the
tools for short-term gain, will achieve some limited success. However, without the culture supporting
those tools, the Lean initiative will fail, becoming the "flavor of the week" that everyone knew would not
“Even the greatest idea can become meaningless in the rush to judgement. To gauge an idea as feasible
we must cut our ties to the status quo and find the balance between constructive criticism and judgment.
Within that balance we will uncover crucial input for making our ideas a reality.” – Shigeo Shingo.
Mike Thelen is Lean Facilitator at Aberdeen, SD based Hub City, Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit
Corporation, Beloit, WI. He has led Lean Initiatives in positions from Front-Line Supervisor to System
Coordinator in various corporations since 2001. Mike can be reached at email@example.com.