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Turning the corner

By Li Aiqiang

Executive summary
Value stream mapping, kanban, time and motion and other tools of lean production certainly are important. But if your company or plant wants all the possible benefits from lean, it must pay attention to culture. That’s why a solid change management strategy is the cornerstone of any lean transformation

On one hand, more enterprises are introducing and applying lean manufacturing, a proven philosophy to reduce waste, increase efficiency, improve quality and preserve competitive performance. On the other hand, some lean practitioners focus too much on applying lean tools or methods such as value stream mapping, kanban and time and motion study, not on developing lean culture and philosophy. But to achieve success, cultivating and managing a lean culture is as important, if not more important, than the actual tools. If we trace lean history and review lean development stories from industry representatives, we find that the launch and evolution of lean manufacturing is always a process parallelism of change management – the change of industrial models, peoples’ working behavior and, ultimately, company culture.

Thus, in order to make your lean journey a positive step, pay great attention to change management, especially to the change of people’s minds and behaviors before and within the journey. Too many companies were in a hurry to implement lean tools and methods without careful consideration of the “sharp change.” As a result, the weak understanding of lean within the whole organization leads to opposition, blame or even a complete failure. Therefore, through the process of lean transformation and implementation, change management should serve as a prelude and cornerstone for lean manufacturing.

First, change management (induction) will at an early stage provide employees, both from management levels to front-line operators, the reasons, background and necessities for the lean transformation. It will bring a platform and opportunity to introduce change and communicate with a bidirectional flow between the top and bottom of the organization. The employees learn how serious and meaningful the topic is, and thus can decide whether to support the change. Top management could read the concerns, doubts and worries from the employees’ faces, thus re-evaluating and adjusting plans. It also shows respect for people, especially those at lower levels, which is one of the pillars of the Toyota Production System. Successful changes are not achieved by abusing power, such as by ordering employees to just do it. If the shop floor workers were introduced to lean manufacturing without proper communication for understanding and buy-in at the beginning, they may think that they were kept in the dark. Misunderstanding, fighting, rumors and all kinds of obstacles will halt the lean journey.

Second, since the process of lean manufacturing goes along with changing peoples’ minds, behaviors and ultimately the company culture, it is necessary to develop the skills to guide and manage the change. Normally, it is easier for a lean expert to handle the “hardware” issues, such as the physical material and equipment, but much more difficult to deal with the “software,” namely the people in the network chain. Sometimes the lean expert will find himself blocked in a corner by people who stick to the old thinking and are not willing to try a new method to improve the situation. Change management could foster a thought shift from “tell me to do” to “let me get involved,” from “conventional thinking” to “innovative thinking” and from “make it once and forever” to “continuous improvement.”

However, as the saying goes, it is easier said than done. Change cannot be realized overnight. In fact, changing employees’ minds and behavior is a risky, headache-filled and lengthy process. Therefore, change management will be a necessary and practical steering tool during the endless lean transformation process. The lean expert and front-line leaders should learn change management skills to handle conflicts, manage transformation and direct the way more smoothly.

Last, good tools, methods and typical case studies of change management will serve as a cornerstone for theory, a strong spokesman for communication and a guide for action during the lean journey. For example, the famous fable book Our Iceberg Is Melting vividly explains how to “understand and be understood,” why to change people’s minds and how to change in the real world. And the famous eight-step process of change management will help change agents direct the lean journey.

The following are details about recent practices of two factories that manufacture marine parts in China.

As a starting point, we tried to get strong commitment from top management and support from human resources to promote lean manufacturing in the factory. Top management’s involvement combined with human resources mediating made it easier to create a sense of urgency, set up the guiding team and develop the change vision and strategy. It is advisable to have a human resources expert on the guiding team since he will serve as an activator during the “change” process. He will clarify team members’ roles and responsibilities, hear the voice of employees, and communicate across organizational barriers to mediate conflicts and promote collaboration. The guiding team also should have the lean expert and the heads of production, logistics, quality and human resources. The team applied a simple toolkit called rapid plant assessment (RPA for short, developed by R. Eugene Goodson, chairman of the board for Williams Controls Inc.) for an official plant tour to evaluate “where we are now” and experience “how far away are we from the ideal lean factory.” The RPA helps enrich the plans of the change events and serves as a reference and milestone for the lean journey.

Then, the guiding team carefully prepared and conducted a training presentation about change management for front-line leaders from the production, logistics and purchasing and quality departments. Later, the team made this presentation to operators. The head of the factory is invited to the training to show his support for this change event. This presentation detailed the background and objectives of the change to lean manufacturing. It used current market analysis to explain how the global crisis has affected ship building in China and the world, increasing the urgency of making changes. Other than the analysis of the sharply decreasing market, the presentation includes some encouraging news, such as the strengthened effort to win new orders and promises not to cut salary at the moment.

It is sensitive and risky to focus only on the negative aspects when explaining the urgency because such information could deplete the employees’ morale or even result in a big turnover. Thus, positive aspects should be well prepared, analogous to a little sweetener that adds taste when mixed with hot drinks. Use the presentation to create a scene that there is no alternative but change to get through the current crisis and to gain a competitive position in the future. Emphasize that one practical and effective solution is to use lean manufacturing to reduce and eliminate waste and costs. Then, as a guiding and supporting tool, we introduced the book Our Iceberg Is Melting to the audience, assigning intensive reading as homework. Feedback papers with questions and suggestions are distributed with the book. Moreover, for the purpose of making the training meaningful and empowering front-line leaders to act, each front-line leader is advised to select one change point in his surroundings as his practice project. Later, each leader also will shoulder the responsibility of being the “change” culture carrier and guider within his unit.

After the book was introduced, the presentation delved into the eight-step process of successful change management and examined change cases from production fields in other Chinese factories. The eight-step process was explained in general, and then each process was analyzed. As a result, key processes that should be given first priority were emphasized. Later, some impressive cases were studied to show how the process was operated and managed in practice. Some may think top management and the lean expert are responsible for directing the whole picture, making it unnecessary to introduce the eight-step process to shop-level management. That is partly correct if lower-level workers just want to be told what to do and where to go. But if they don’t understand the reasons for change and its relationship to the big picture, they may support it in public but work against it in private.

After showing the eight-step process, we showed video benchmarks of key competitors and analyzed the lean way in the automotive industry to see where we are and where we are going. Video benchmark is a vivid, visual way to attract the eyes of attendees and a clear expression of what is now and what is to be. But the video material should be picked out carefully to hit the points. In our case, all the videos were about shop floor production, so attendees could see some of the lean elements such as 5S and visual control. The trainer also reserves some minutes for group discussions and asks questions like “On which points is it better than our factory?”

Finally, photos were used to demonstrate current problems found during the rapid plant assessment tour, followed by the actions taken. We studied successful references from our factory or another corporate branch to show what improved after the changes. Within the presentation, all the change ideas came from the front-line workers, and the changes are made during nonbusy time. In this way, audience members can understand the benefits of change because it is close to their daily work. Despite not showing it on their faces, in the deep heart of their soul there was a little shake because under their noses they saw so many opportunities for improvements. The rule “Seeing is believing and touching is understanding” was quite useful to get front-line personnel involved in the lean change.

After the in-house training, the lean leader or guiding team member spends time in the factory watching what operators are doing, listening to their discussions (complaints), helping front-line leaders explain the lean way and checking how the practice project is going (go, see and act). When the project is finished, we shared one or two internal benchmarks among all the units to encourage further improvements and wider involvement. On the company notice board near the canteen, we present to the public the best practitioners and their change projects. The factory boss awards them the improvement bonus and their achievements are recorded by human resources for future performance evaluation. Under famed American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people subconsciously thirst for higher-level needs such as a sense of achievement and feelings of being respected by the company. Therefore, recognizing achievements on time and rewarding short-term wins with small celebrations are great motivators during the change journey.

In addition, for those still unclear about or who lack enthusiasm for the lean change, we hold more training and kaizen seminars on site for deeper illumination and induction. In this case, it has proved useful to have lean leaders lead the training/seminar by example. They should not be afraid to get their hands dirty because, on the shop floor, actions speak louder than words. The leader also should encourage front-line leaders to put their ideas into practice right away, even if what they made looks ugly and unprofessional. This will avoid the conundrum where everybody is talking about ideas, but nobody is applying them. Furthermore, “Try to make it” is the foundation and starting point of any continuous improvement process. On the shop floor, you commonly hear “If we had the … it would be better” or “If it is modified like that, it will be convenient.” But without change management leadership, chances are that none of them will try to make a change, even if the idea is good and the cost is only 10 minutes plus cheap materials. To sum up, a lean leader leads by example and encourages by actualizing. That is an effective approach for on-site lean change management.

As shop floor leaders and operators see and touch the benefits of lean change, they begin to understand, accept and become involved in the change. During this stage, the organization identifies and cultivates potential lean carriers and guiders. These people will step by step take over some tasks of leading the cross-functional lean change and kaizen events. They become part of a rising, spiraling cycle of training-practicing/identifying-training. As lean practitioners know, it is impossible for a single in-house event to make the necessary improvements once and forever.

The lean change process not only applies lean tools, it also integrates change management – including training, induction and practice conclusion, individual involvement and group teamwork as well as physical promotion and mental inspiration. Therefore, change management serves as a prelude and cornerstone for the overall journey to lean manufacturing.

Li Aiqiang is a manufacturing expert responsible for lean manufacturing development in the Shanghai factories of a multinational marine company. He received his master’s degree in mechatronical engineering in January 2006 from Central South University in China. After that, he worked as an equipment engineer on lean production for Bosch. He has been published in Industrial Engineer, Industrial Management and Manufacturing magazines.

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