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Lean Enterprise founder discloses problems of lean sustainability

Supplier: Supply Today Pty Ltd
08 April, 2011

Supply Today has provided Jim Womack’s discourse on the problem of lean sustainability.

Jim Womack is the Chairman and Founder of Lean Enterprise Institute.

Jim Womack relates an instance where an organisation resorted to the old ways of working after the lean improvement team left the premises.

At a facility where Jim Womack’s friend had led one of the first lean implementation efforts in healthcare in mid-1990s, the value streams began to regress soon after the lean team left.

This facility was one where the lean improvement team had conducted a comprehensive campaign to kaizen the organisation's key value streams and had remarkable results. There were faster patient flows, better outcomes and Lower costs. But the facility could not sustain the gains.
The improvement efforts weren't connected to the way the organisation was managed and the value streams started to regress to the mean as soon as the improvement team left. The whole program came to an end.

In the annual LEI web survey of the Lean Community, a leading problem Lean Thinkers always note about their improvement efforts is ‘backsliding to old ways of working’ after initial progress. And a frequently cited issue this year is ‘middle management resistance’ to change. In short, the lean movement has a sustainability issue that has to be addressed.

Jim Womack believes that the root cause of regression in most organisations today is confusion about priorities at different levels of the organisation compounded by the failure to make anyone responsible for the performance of important value streams as they flow horizontally across the enterprise.

To prevent regression, someone needs to periodically clarify priorities for each value stream and identify the performance gap between what the customer needs and what the value stream is providing.

The person taking responsibility then needs to engage everyone touching the value stream in carefully capturing the current condition (the current state) of the value stream which is causing the gap. The next step is to envision a better value stream and determine who will need to do what by when to bring it into being.

Finally, the value stream leader needs to determine what will constitute evidence that the performance gap has been closed and collect the data to demonstrate this. This exercise isis the same as Dr. Deming's Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle conducted repetitively by the responsible person, ideally employing A3 analysis.

According to Jim Womack, during the transition to a mature lean organisation, someone with another job in the organisation needs to take on the role of periodically (and quickly) auditing the horizontal flow of value and bringing to the attention of everyone touching the stream how the organisation is performing along that stream.

Periodic audits of processes within small areas (for example, a continuous-flow work cell or a materials replenishment process) are a well established aspect of Toyota practices. Jim Womack calls them ‘standard management’.

So auditing across departments and functions to examine value stream from end to end is a scaling up of current practice and not something new.

Auditing every value stream will expose problems with the flow of value and contradictions in organisational objectives. It will expose many problems and contradictions.

Most value streams currently have substantial performance gaps, but the magnitude of the gap and the precise causes are hard for anyone to see. (Hence the confusion and resistance of many middle managers, who are doing well on one set of objectives - asset utilisation, for example -- when lean methods require another set.)

And fixing the root causes of poor performance will require someone or everyone, touching the stream to change their behaviour.

It follows that the responsible manager needs to engage in a dialogue with the leaders of the functions and, if necessary, with top level management to gain agreement on who must do what by when to achieve a sustainable leap in performance that will benefit the customer and the organisation. (One of the whats is likely to be rethinking the metrics the change resisting middle managers are being judged on.)

The responsible person then must periodically revisit the value stream, not just to prevent regression but continually move it to a higher level of performance.

A special problem, Jim Womack feels, is that that the current-day Toyota cannot be simply copied. In the past Toyota went through many iterations of how to solve the problem of value stream management across the organisation.

But today its mature organisation relies on policy management (hoshin kanri) at the macro level and a cadre of line managers auditing their areas at the micro level.

Because there is no confusion about objectives from top to bottom and because managers have been taught from the very beginning of their careers how to see the flow of value under their management, no formally appointed value stream managers are needed.

Other organisations are different and they need experiments with value stream management methods. Whatever the final answer, everyone in the Lean Community has a big stake in solving the sustainability problem.

Otherwise, the current surge of interest in lean, driven by the success of Toyota, may become just another episode in the long history of unsustainable management improvement campaigns.