Difficulties with Changing to a Lean Culture: Part XII
Communication! Communication? Communication.
Where will the “human-side” of Lean hit you? Mike Thelen shares experiences with communication in
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.
I am returning from the 2008 Lean, Reliable and Lubed conference in Nashville, TN. Beyond the
opportunities to network with other Lean professionals, I was able to share what my current employer has
accomplished. In addition, I was able to hear first-hand the questions and concerns of people who either
are just beginning their Lean journey, both as corporations and as individuals, or have yet to begin the
journey (with all respect to Dr. Ross Robson, former Director of The Shingo Prize for Operational
Excellence, I simply can’t think of a better word yet than “journey”).
After several very informative discussions with a specific individual, I realize that many keys are glossed
over, without providing specific details that led to their success (or failure). I will break format from usual
and provide more of a first-person account in an attempt to bring detail and description into focus. This
one is for the South Dakota State University graduate now working in Minneapolis (won’t use his name
without permission, but I knew his wife in high school – you know who you are!)
The “hot topic” today is communication. Does Lean improve communication? How does Lean improve
communication? Is it simple to improve communication?
Yes. With commitment. No. Answers are clear, right? Great, article is done. Glad I could help.
Okay, time to be serious. Does Lean improve communication? If done correctly, being guided correctly,
and with commitment, yes Lean does improve communication. Is the process easy? No. Speaking as a
married individual, what has to be the number one problem in relationships? Communication. If
communication is so difficult with someone you choose to spend the rest of your life with, how could it be
any easier with someone you barely, truly know?
How does Lean improve communication? Lean, when done correctly, creates a visual workplace. This is
demonstrated in many ways, 5S, standardized work, hourly process tracking, problem identification and
countermeasure utilization and kaizen. All of these tools have multiple purposes. Each provides a
means for communication.
When a facility has undergone a 5S transformation, it is now immediately visible if things are misplaced.
That provides communication. I am not only referencing the, “Hey boss, my wrench is gone”
communication (which, by the way, provides the ability to either find or replace the wrench BEFORE it is
needed and the waste of delay accumulates while looking or replacing). The real communication is the
unspoken communication to those around who know they cannot simply take “the wrench” or it will be
noticed, and the spoken communication that now occurs when someone asks for “the wrench” prior to
taking it. With that, the location of the wrench is known (assuming it was loaned out because it was not
needed), therefore eliminating the potential waste of delay. Wow, 5S not only provides organization, but
communication, problem solving and poka-yoke.
Standardized work, if done correctly, is an agreement between operators and leaders as to the job
elements (steps), order and timing required to complete a task (if you are familiar with true Lean, this
should sound familiar – Rule #1 of the Rules in Use as defined by Jeff Liker in The Toyota Way).
Standardized work requires open and constant communication between not only an operator and a
leader, but also between operators on alternate shifts. Remember, standardized work should be posted
at the machine. Operators should be constantly seeking better methods to perform their standardized
work. When an improvement is suggested, it is tested and communicated across the shifts. If proven
successful, it then becomes the new standardized work.
Process tracking is the constant and [near] instantaneous communication between operators, as well as
between operators and leaders, on job performance. If the takt time (pace of the line determined by the
customer demand) is not being met, it is known immediately. In traditional management practices,
performance (at best) is determined the next day, when reports are generated. At that point, it is too late
to correct the problem(s). If done correctly, tracking provides the supporting information to make *snap*
decisions and communicate appropriate countermeasures.
Lets discuss Problem/Countermeasure. Problems and countermeasures need to be tracked at the
Gemba. This must be done to record what caused the drop in performance (as shown on the process
tracking sheets) and what was done as a short-term countermeasure, as well as what will be done as a
long-term countermeasure (in the hope that the problem never returns). The last point is critical if a
company desires to step away from fire fighting and truly into problem resolution. The
problem/countermeasure tracking provides communication across shifts, as it is maintained at the
Gemba. This allows all shifts to see what happened previously and what was/is being done to correct the
problem. Good leaders will take the first few minutes of their shifts to review the problems encountered
on previous shifts.
Finally, if a company is performing kaizen correctly, it is also a communication tool. In this instance, there
are two forms of kaizen. One is the actual act of continuous improvement. Some might know it as “Quick
and Easy” as described by Norman Bodek and Shigeo Shingo. In this form, kaizen is done at any and all
times. It is captured on a “kaizen sheet” or similar tracking document. Operators are encouraged to
make improvements without hesitation. The sheet allows for idea sharing, hence communication, though
visual posting of the ideas in the facility. The individual is often encouraged to act first, and then record
results. This is different from the traditional U.S. suggestion system where ideas are often lost, forgotten
or simply disregarded (showing no respect for people).
The second form of kaizen is the “kaizen event.” In an event, cross-functional teams are organized,
perhaps even from other facilities, to focus directly on a specific problem for an established period of time.
Operators from the functional area are involved, as are (often) individuals from: Purchasing, Sales,
Engineering, Accounting, Maintenance, Scheduling and other functional groups. This cross-functional
participation greatly enhances communication across a broader spectrum of the organization, as all are
treated as equals. Again, improvements are documented to share beyond the team. This, if done
correctly, also establishes new communication links across departmental lines. In a long-term goal
perspective, this helps tear down the functional silos that have traditionally developed, to the detriment of
When all of these opportunities come together, there is still one critical element that needs attention, the
I can relate stories of Executives and Managers questioning how long you really need to participate in the
“walks.” The walk is critical to success and is as fundamental as 5S. It is not something done for a short
time, to be discarded like an old newspaper. This is NOT management by walking around (MBWA). A
true, effective Gemba walk is a daily focus on and discussion of the process tracking boards.
You can make your walk effective by asking the right questions. What story are the boards sharing?
Why were goals not met? What is being done to recover from and remove noted problems? What is the
to-the-minute status of the area? And does it need attention? What are our goals and expectations for
today, tomorrow, next week, next month? How have we been performing (is this a regular occurrence or
an abnormal situation)? Most importantly, what does the process or area need from Gemba leadership to
succeed? The correct Gemba feeds communication in a two-way, instantaneous manner across
departments represented and levels of hierarchy. It facilitates and encourages problem solving and
respect for people (the two pillars of Lean).
As Edwin H. Friedman once said, “The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that
insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on
syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is
being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when
your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.