Very often I am contacted with a request for assistance that goes something like this. “We started with six sigma ten years ago and five years ago we added lean to make it a lean six sigma program. We had many good documented projects with significant cost savings, though over time the great tools and methods were not followed and the areas went backward. During the Great Recession we laid off large numbers of people, including many of the lean six sigma black belts, and the program languished. Now we are restarting with a new focus on leadership and culture.” (What to do with lean in a crisis)
In essence they are rebooting their “program,” with a new focus on the human side of lean. The fact that they still think of it as a program is somewhat problematic, but at least they are sticking with it and realize they have a problem. When a company reboots, does this mean they failed and have to start over? I believe the answer is an emphatic no!
One such case is a large company my group has worked with for years. We supported their lean manufacturing program which was led by black belts and frankly very tools focused. We then supported their lean product development program which was more people centered, but did not have strong support from senior management so there have been spotty pockets of excellence. The Great Recession led to massive layoffs and the division heads were given autonomy to do what they wanted with lean, which mostly meant underfunded efforts that largely disappeared. (Lean manufacturing mitigates job loss during recession)
An interesting thing happened in one area of the world where a senior executive brought in a former Toyota lean consultant. He worked on model areas in two plants. Instead of focusing on tools he focused only on a business outcome—quality. As quality problems were discovered, he taught rigorous problem solving methods to help workers solve problems as they occurred. Dramatic results magically appeared as people in the plant started understanding the meaning of problem solving for the first time.
These success stories were elevated to the level of the CEO, and eventually the board of directors asked this lean consultant to lead a reinvigoration of their lean program with a focus on quality. These improvements were then used as leverage to draw in supporting functions such as purchasing, logistics, and engineering. The company has since established a new lean office with new leaders who are focused on people and problem solving.
Is this reboot starting over? No. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge about lean and six sigma and problem solving throughout the company to build on. Progress has been very rapid because of that foundation. With the new focus on developing people through improving processes through deep problem solving lean is beginning to take hold at a deeper cultural level. There is a very long way to go, but the early signs are very encouraging. Quality is a rallying point and focusing on concrete problems, learning by doing, is leading to broad engagement. Rebooting can mean a new phase of learning, not admitting defeat.
Dr. Jeffrey Liker is a professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan and author of The Toyota Way. He leads Liker Lean Advisors, LLC and his latest book (with Gary Convis) is The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.