“Lean Tourism”? I’m Not a Fan

Rick Bohan

I just got a request via my website contact form.  Here’s what I was asked:

“I was wondering if you could help me locate a business that is far along in their Lean journey. I would like to take some employees to visit the plant if they accept tours.”

This desire to visit other operations to get a look at their lean initiatives is common, I think.  Heck, the little organization I used to work for, Work In Northeast Ohio Council, made a good bit of money taking people on visits to Saturn down in Tennessee, Harley-Davidson, and even Miller Brewery in Cincinnati.   It seemed there were a lot of folks eager to see someone else’s lean journey.

I don’t have anything particular against such “tourism”…I just don’t think it’s very effective.    Most of the visible parts of a tour display that relatively easy stuff.

I once went on a sales call that went very well.  The prospective client asked if I had another client that was well along on its lean journey that he and his supervisors might visit.  I ended up taking him and various members of his organization on three plant tours to two of my clients.  The last one was for his own boss, the company’s president.  In the end, I didn’t get the gig.  I’m pretty sure his boss looked around at the company he was touring and told his plant manager, “No reason why we can’t do this.”  He saw an organized work place and metrics charts on a dry erase board.  What was the big deal?  What he didn’t see, of course, were the hours of education, training, and coaching that were needed to sustain the organized workplace and the effective use of those charts.  “Lean tourism”, then, can reinforce a “What’s the big deal? Anybody can do this.” attitude.

Ironically, it can also reinforce a “We can’t do this because it doesn’t fit our particular circumstances,” attitude.  A past client of mine had plastics extrusion and injection molding plants around the country.  Managers  would regularly visit the other plants to benchmark their operations and processes.  Most of the time, it was surprisingly difficult to get managers to implement anything that they had seen or learned at another plant:  “It might work fine there but it won’t work here.”  Never mind that “there” and “here” made the same product using the same technology and processes.

Here’s the thing:  the best way to learn how to implement any approach to continual improvement of operations is to simply get started.  It’s like, you don’t have to go visit the kitchens of the three best restaurants in town to learn how to cook…just get a recipe, buy the ingredients, and turn the stove on.  You’ll mess up a few of the first dishes you cook but, quickly, you’ll figure things out and get better at it.  Eventually, you’ll be impressing friends and family with the Thanksgiving and Christmas spreads you put out.  The same is true with lean…start cleaning and organizing your workplace.  Then make everything visual.  It’s not rocket science.

Here’s how I responded to the request for a “lean tour”:

“Here’s what you should do….
Get started on lean in your own operation.  A good place to start is 5S and Visual Factory.  Get that up and running and in pretty good shape.  You don’t have to be world class just make a good start and have something to show and talk about.
Then, put out the word that your company has made some progress on lean and is eager to show anyone around your operation who’s willing to host you on a return visit.  I guarantee you’ll get lots of offers. And you’ll learn more that you would just visiting other operations that are way ahead of you.”
So, “lean tours” can have value when they are carried out as idea exchanges between two committed and energetic organizations.  Otherwise, I don’t think they’re of much help to either party.

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