Friday, May 29, 2009

The Need for Quality First Line Supervision

At the heart of every successful organization is excellent first line supervision. The discipline and accountability forms the basis for stability and consistency and hence continuous improvement throughout the organization. The people you place in the first line of supervision are the key to your success, or lack thereof. There are four key points when developing quality supervisors:

1. Develop the supervisors you have and put systems in place to create new leaders.
2. Give them responsibility and hold them accountable for their performance.
3. Continuously evaluate your talent and reward the best performers.
4. Involve people in their work and allow them opportunities to develop.

One of the key mistakes made consistently throughout all industries is promoting based on the skill level of completing a task. It is important to understand that promotion to team lead or supervisor should be based on skills that a leader needs such as initiative, organization, and most importantly the ability to motivate a team and hold them accountable for reaching targets. Following that one step further, your existing supervisors need to have the responsibility for reaching goals and targets and the management must hold them accountable. It is how great organizations execute to a high level every day. Each person is held accountable for achieving what needs to be done in their area.

This could mean a complete overhaul of your evaluation and promotion process. Don't be frightened because that is what is necessary to continuously evaluate your talent and reward the best performers. Promote those that understand where you want to bring your organization and are willing to work hard to make sure you bring it there. It may mean setting up specific tasks or projects to give people the opportunity to show the skills required. It definitely means you should be cross-training and rotating your employees regularly to stimulate growth and improvement and give you the chance to see them in different roles. It gives them the chance to be involved and develop and you the knowledge you need to promote those best suited to leading and not those best suited to doing.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Stability is the Foundation

I want to start this blog with a quote from Art Smalley. He is one of the 'Lean' experts that I greatly respect for his focus on execution. He writes on lean as if he were a company owner rather than a professor discussing theories or a consultant trying to sell something. It is from an article on Superfactory titled: Creating Basic Stability (find the article at

Toyota has been reluctant to publish or even endorse what they consider to be the right way to implement lean. Their reluctance is well taken given our inherent human tendency to look for an easy way out or cut and paste answers from elsewhere. Toyota executives have always maintained that TPS/lean is a system of thinking and that practitioner’s can best “learn by doing.”

When pressed, however, veterans of Toyota comment that certain pre-conditions are needed for a lean implementation to proceed smoothly. These include relatively few problems in equipment uptime, available materials with few defects, and strong supervision at the production line level. And these are precisely the problems that I see manufacturers still struggling with today.

He goes on to discuss how Basic Stability should be considered the first step in a Lean transformation or even a precursor to attempting to become Lean. What gain can be had from jumping straight to Kanban sizing when poor quality raw materials are driving increased inventory? How can you create flow when machines continually break down? How long will improved performance as a result of Kaizen and standard work last when first line supervision isn't creating disciplined people and disciplined processes to maintain the gains?

This starts to get to the heart of this blog. It's putting the cart before the horse by jumping straight to the 'sexy' tools of Lean rather than understanding that a foundation for success needs to be in place. That foundation is not necessarily unique to Lean either. Not every great company is Lean and not every (or even all that many...) Lean companies are great. So why are some more successful than others?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Principles for Process Management

A well run organization always has well defined and executed processes. If you look in the Toyota Production System (the basis of today's Lean) Basic Handbook they give to employees, the foundation their entire system is built on is Stability. The focus of Six Sigma is to reduce variation and increase process control. Great literature from Sun Tzu's The Art of War through to Henry Ford and on to Jack Welch focus on discipline and the need for stability. Quint Studer looks towards 'disciplined people and disciplined processes' in Hospitals and in his research on companies that moved from Good to Great, Jim Collins found that they all had a culture of discipline.

This quest for discipline and stability creates consistent process that customers can count on. It reduces waste and the costs of poor quality. It reduces the need for supervision and inspection. It is also the basis of improvement. How can you improve a process that is not completed the same every time? Even if you were to make a change, would that change continue to benefit if you can't count on it being performed consistently?

Three Principles for Process Management:
1. Solve Problems
2. Create Robust Management Systems
Continuously Improve

How do you bring about stability and discipline? Start with relentlessly raising and solving problems. Leave no stone unturned and ignore no problem however small. Ask Why five times for every problem you find and be sure to follow through. Once problems are starting to be solved it is easier to create consistent and robust management systems for all processes. These systems are the lifeblood of a successful company, not a paper exercise for auditors. With a culture of problem solving in place and robust systems in operation, then a company can focus on reducing waste and continuously improving every day. Use the best and brightest you have to drive change and then incorporate that change into your robust systems so you can be sure of the benefit.

Monday, March 30, 2009

TPS is the Result of Great Problem Solving

Taiichi Ohno, the founder of the modern Toyota Production System (TPS), says that the Toyota system is built upon the practice and evolution of Asking Why Five Times as a scientific approach. What he is saying is that the Toyota system is a result of continuously pursuing problems and solving them. Every tool in the Lean toolbox was developed in answer to a problem that they were having. The very first chapter in his book on the subject is titled: Starting from Need. They were experts at defining problems, relentlessly solving them and extending best practice throughout the company.

On hearing that, doesn't it make sense to start your journey towards Sustained Performance by focusing on solving problems rather than with a set of tools designed by someone else to solve their problems?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why Lean Sucks.

I am an experienced 'Lean' practitioner that has come to the conclusion that 'Lean' sucks. Please excuse the harsh language, but I feel quite passionate about the subject.

Imagine this situation: You approach an expert to help you lose weight and he promptly advises you to buy his book on the subject, the 'Perfect Pushup', a Bowflex, a yoga ball, a set of weights and a treadmill. He then declares that you are nearly there (and charges you a hefty fee...).

What's wrong here? Everybody knows that the best way to lose weight is through hard work and not fancy tools. You can eat well and exercise without all the tools and get to the end product. A Bowflex or a book on Healthy Eating can be a great assistance if used correctly, but is not the end product. The end product is losing weight.

Toyota is the model for 'Lean' and they have been very successful in the last 40 years. The reason for their success lies in their having a solid strategy that focuses on their customer and giving them a quality product, their discipline and excellent first line supervision, their utter dedication to solving problems, creating robust systems and continuously improving each step of their processes. Their success is not due to the few tools they developed to solve problems in their specific system.

Yet this is what you see during any 'Lean' transformation. Start with Value Stream Mapping (which I believe was a tool that had little to do with mapping 'value' and is not all that often used at Toyota), then go onto 5S (which most people miss the point of creating accountability and cascading authority and jump straight to cleaning up), then into week long Kaizens, etc, etc.

I read an article last week on how to know if your company was lean and not one of the metrics listed had anything remotely associated with making a profit. "What percentage of your Value Streams are mapped?" So having a map on the wall makes me Lean? Forgive me, but I'd rather have a dollar in my pocket.

In future posts, I am hoping to pull out some advice and ideas from great minds that show up over and over in the various books by great leaders of industry such as Jack Welch and leaders in Healthcare such as Quint Studer, books on Lean and Six Sigma, research explained in books such as
Good to Great and First, Break All the Rules, and hundreds of other sources.

The purpose of this is to show that there are fundamentals to success in any organization that tend to get glossed over during a 'Lean' transformation. If you want a head-start you can visit my website at It's in the process of being updated, but has some information already on it. Hope to see you again soon and please leave any thoughts or examples. I'll gladly incorporate them into the book form of Why Lean Sucks and we can both be famous.