Leadership that Fizzles Out

Rick Bohan

About a year ago, a small local company got in touch with me with an interest in implementing lean tools. Management told me what they wanted, I told them how I went about things and what it would cost.  We set up a schedule and started the project.  There were a few warning signals early on I suppose.  I’d arrive for our meeting and the managers would appear as if I wasn’t expected.  The conference table would be covered with dirty parts and tools. On the other hand, they were carrying out their agreed upon tasks reasonably well, better than other clients I’ve had. But that problem of not being ready for meetings got worse, so that meetings would be cancelled…after I arrived.  In other cases, some “emergency” or other would pop up and the meeting would be stopped and postponed.   After one such cancellation, management told me, “We’re really busy.  We’ll let you know when we want to get started again.” I waited a few weeks, then sent a few emails that went unanswered and made a few phone calls that weren’t returned.  Finally, I got in touch with the owner, who had hired me in the first place.  He said he was surprised that no one had gotten back in touch with me, but…”we’re really busy, so we’ll let you know.”

I’ve often wondered how it happens that management takes the trouble to find a consultant, get started on a lean initiative, even make a bit of progress before letting the project fizzle out all together.  (I confess I’ve had this happen a couple of other times.  Yeah, I know…it could be they just don’t like me, but I get good feedback from clients that actually do follow through.)  I have to think that a fair amount of discussion among senior leaders and managers took place before the initiative was started.  It’s tough to imagine that someone in the company woke up one morning and thought, “I think I’ll hire a consultant this week and get started on the lean thing to see what it’s all about.”  So, what is it that happens?

I probably should follow up to see just what it is that happened (or didn’t happen) but I don’t.  But I have a few hypotheses.  First, I wonder if lean methods are still being oversold.  I get the impression, at times, that clients, in spite of my admonitions to the contrary, expect that I and they will implement some arcane methods that only smart guys like me know about, after which throughput, quality, customer service, and general employee happiness will leap forward in a month, maybe two.  They nod their heads affirmatively when I tell them that a successful lean implementation will take a couple of years, even in a small organization, but get impatient when sales haven’t doubled and margins jumped up by the third month of the project.

Second, I’m fairly certain that, again, in spite of my admonitions, clients underestimate how…tedious…a lean implementation can be.  Laying the foundation for a successful lean culture is like laying the foundation for a building…first, you gotta dig a hole, maybe by hand.  Then you gotta lay heavy cement blocks…lots and lots of heavy cement blocks.  By hand.  The final edifice is going to look great but that’s a long time away and, right now, the work is boring and hard.  A lean implementation is like that.  The company has to carry out lots of activities that aren’t much fun and the immediate payoff for which is just about nil.  Like getting all the junk off the shop floor.  And, maybe, painting the place.  And labeling all the cabinets and shelves.  And telling that operator for the 33rd time to put his damn tools back on the shadowboard when he’s through with them.  All to say, lean implementations aren’t nearly as exciting as perhaps the client hoped they would be.

Third,  nobody, most especially managers, in my experience, like to be told that they need to change what they’ve been doing and how they’ve been doing it.  I tell managers that they’ll need to take a “gemba walk” through the operations several times a day if they want operators to actually change their behaviors…and they don’t do it.  Then wonder why operators aren’t adhering to the new standards.  A team creates a value stream map and figures that a supermarket between two departments will improve flow and scheduling substantially.  All that’s needed is four squares painted on the floor and some communications between the department supervisor and the operators to get started.  Two months later, there are no squares on the floor and the same flow and schedule problems exist between the departments.  A leadership team agrees to buy a bulletin board and post charts of several important plant performance indicators.  Six weeks later…no bulletin board and no charts.  I know that managers and operators aren’t lazy.  I just think that they aren’t good at changing their routines, even when they agree that change is needed.

I’m not sure how to address all of this effectively.  I feel that I speak to these issues before starting any engagement but I’m not eager to hammer so stridently on these issues that clients become dispirited before they start.  And, perhaps, it doesn’t matter what I say at the start of a project if clients are only hearing what they want to hear.

As I’ve said so many times…the tools are straightforward, it’s the culture change that’s the challenge.


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