Stick or twist


Most leaders working in a Lean environment will have gone through a painful journey of figuring out how to juggle a non-lean diary (meetings and possibly more meetings) with the pressures of performing the role of a Lean leader in the workplace.

In the utopian Lean world we would look for senior leaders to be spending eighty percent or more on the shop floor with a standard diary consisting of coaching others in problem solving, process confirmation and principles checking. So how possible is it to reach this percentage whilst also taking care of the strategic issues management are there to do and how wise is it to do so?

My experience tells me that the more focus leaders are able to give to coaching frontline staff and direct reports, the more stable and effective the operation becomes.  It helps to embed the thinking way in the operation and the symbolic presence of a señor leader working their way through a Standardised Work cannot be underestimated; especially in the early stages of a Lean transformation.  I also believe that the more time spent on the shop floor means less time having to put out fires releasing more time to be a manager and do the forward thinking.

However, I am an external resource, there to perform a job of helping to embed the Lean transformation and success relies a great deal on leaders leading the change.  I, therefore, have a selfish need to exaggerate the percentage time required for managers on the shop floor. I usually start with an opening gambit of 80% knowing full well that push back is on its way and I’ll end up with something in the region of 30%.

Does that surprise you, the 30%?  Sometimes we’re lucky if we can get that and in most cases it is a quantum leap from the current state.  A while ago I asked a manager for a manufacturing facility to give me a copy of their outlook diary for the month to see when we could schedule some time for the TPM work we had planned.  The diary had back to back meetings from the Monday through to Wednesday, 7am to 4:00pm fully blocked with reporting.  Two morning sessions on the Thursday and Friday was scheduled with the manager’s superintendents who both came to her office from the plants to save time.  She kept the Friday free for ‘catch-up’ time which when asked she explained was either prepping for the next week’s meetings or for SAP requirements.

I asked her when she had last visited the shop floor to do any type of coaching or mentoring.  ‘Does doing it over Skype count?’ she asked.  I imagine my mouth gaping as it did gave an indication.  My point is this:  looking at the meetings slated in the diary for the month did not give me any confidence that time was spent on high flying strategy to change the game for the company in question.  It looked more like an interminable quest for answers as to why maintenance was behind plan and ways of spinning the story to justify better technology to improve the plan.  When I suggested I wanted 80% of her time on the shop-floor to drive improvement and implement Lean she agreed without hesitation.  ‘Yes, please. Anything but this.’

Four months in we were averaging 30 odd percent but the improvement in performance was significant. The TPM programme is still well supported and I can’t really complain about leadership presence on the shop floor. Asking for more would compromise her standing in the company.  Over time, if the results keep coming, that may change and more time may be released in favour of the kata thinking. Should I put my foot down and say that in automotive the percentage is much higher or stick with the hand I’ve got? Twisting on 14 for some is a no brainer but in this case I choose to stick.  For now.

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