Are Some Managers Just Too Dumb To Implement Lean?

Rick Bohan

I once had a client whose business was very capital intensive.  I asked if I could get measures of machine downtime. The plant manager told me that they didn’t measure downtime. Or scrap (the company had a budget variance figure that it referred to as “scrap”  but no one could tell me what part of the number was bad product and what part was just adjustment for counting errors).

My point is that a management team that doesn’t bother to measure track the most basic measures of operational performance might not have the intellectual wherewithal to implement lean.  Lean methods are straightforward but their successful implementation does require a fundamental desire for and vision of operational excellence.  Effective continual improvement is supported by managers and associates who show an interest in the many variables that affect their work and how those variables might be controlled.  Mind you, one doesn’t have to be an engineer or a wizard in operations research to  successfully implement lean methods.  But one does need to be intellectually curious and have a certain amount of cognitive agility and a sense of appreciative wonder about how processes work. This might be another way of saying, managers have to be pretty smart to implement lean.

A manager who doesn’t bother to track downtime in his capital-intensive shop probably isn’t smart enough to effectively implement lean and, perhaps, never will be.  Nor is a manager who doesn’t track scrap.  Nor is a manager who can’t tell you what the rate of on-time shipments to best customers are.

But can’t managers learn that such data is important and come to have motivation to gather and analyze the appropriate data?  Sure, I suppose so.  Transformation is always possible.  But the odds are against it, in most cases, I think.  Managers who haven’t been smart enough or curious enough to gather the most basic info about their operations during careers that might have lasted decades aren’t likely to suddenly change their ways when a new “Lean Program” comes along.  Not voluntarily, at any rate.

What’s to be done, then, when managers just aren’t smart enough to effectively implement lean?  Well, the plant I mentioned at the outset of this post didn’t really start implementing lean effectively until the plant manager in question left and a new one, a much smarter one, replaced him.  Sometimes you just need to have the right people in the right seats on the bus.


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