WOW! That is the only way to describe my reaction when I entered the factory at Joe’s Cabinet Shop after being away for four weeks. The transformation that had taken place was amazing, especially considering the state of acceptance of lean when I left. Four weeks earlier there was a lot of anxiety and frustration coupled with the feeling of being completely overwhelmed. Production was slipping, engineering couldn’t get work to the shop in a timely manner, and processes were out of balance with each other, with some areas one week behind schedule while other areas were as much as six weeks behind. Managers were questioning whether the transformation to lean was worth all of the extra effort.

The state of affairs four weeks earlier was not untypical for the initial foray into a lean transformation. Change doesn’t happen overnight so managers are required to maintain the status quo while moving toward a new and unproven, at least from their perspective, destination. Maintaining equilibrium is challenging for any manager, but at Joe’s, area managers are also working supervisors so they have the added responsibility of staffing a production process along with their other requirements. As for production, taking a few steps backwards instead of immediately moving forward using all of the new lean tools and techniques that everyone has been learning is not unusual. With so many balls in the air at one time, managers are likely to drop a few.

Keeping on course

Instead of throwing in the towel and cutting their losses, Joe’s leadership team chose to persevere and bail water rather than jump ship. I had conditioned the leadership team for this eventuality so they were ready, even if they weren’t fully prepared for it. Faltering in the early stage of a lean transformation occurs because the old norm for operating the business is being turned on its ear. A new and unfamiliar way of doing business is being thrust upon the leadership team. No one has any history to rely upon when making decisions or establishing a course of direction so each step forward is made with trepidation fueled by cautious optimism.

Considering the natural course of events in the early stage of a lean transformation and the lack of experience of both the Lean Champion and the Lean Coordinator, I was pleasantly surprised to find changes in the physical layout and organization of work as well as a new, confident demeanor of the entire staff. The lack of Work-in-Process (WIP) was immediately evident. In fact, my first impression was that business had taken a downturn.

The Lean Champion assured me that the opposite was actually the case. Joe’s staff generated more revenue the week before I returned than had been seen in a long time. There was a little overtime being worked in a couple of key areas, but the chaos and pandemonium of a few weeks earlier was gone and I could sense it in the air.

Improvement takes hold

The highlight of that first morning back was a comment made by one of the area supervisors as soon as he saw me. He said that he finally understood what I had been telling him about how throughput would increase as WIP was reduced. He had discovered that flowing one order at a time through his area was easier to manage and flowed faster than the old way of trying to process multiple orders at the same time. The locations that had been used for staging orders to wait their turn to be processed at subsequent operations were bare. Aisle-ways were clear of partially completed carts and empty carts competing for space with full carts waiting to be processed. People were actually being more productive with the available time in their day without even realizing it. Lean thinking was taking root in the fertile soil of a receptive audience at Joe’s.

Leaders vs. managers

If you didn’t notice a change in terms in the above narrative I will point out that the reference to “managers” in early paragraphs gave way to “leaders” deliberately to set the stage for the real purpose of this article. That purpose being the further development of leadership as the critical element of a successful lean transformation. I was recently sent an article titled “Do You Want a Leader or a Manager?” by Ron Edmondson that I will share in part with you. Mr. Edmondson had been contracted by the board of a company searching for a senior executive. Board members were concerned with continual turnover of the position and their seeming inability to find the right person for the job. In his words:

“They kept using the term ‘leader’ in describing what they wanted and have tried to find in a new executive. They’ve tried to find people who want to lead, because they want to grow again, but they don’t stay long. What’s the problem? What are they doing wrong? That was my baseline question.

“…I don’t know for sure why the previous directors left. There could have been many reasons, but in hearing their [the board member’s] vision, what they want in a director, and the culture of the organization, it was easy to diagnose their problem. They were approaching their search process in the wrong direction. I told them as gently as I knew how: You don’t want someone to lead. You want someone to manage.”

He went on to explain that in any organization, it is important to know the difference. Do you want a leader or a manager? Leaders lead change. Managers guide systems. If you want someone to take what you already have and keep it running, get a manager. If you want someone to take you to new places, even better places than you’ve been before, find a leader. Let them lead. Get behind them and hold on tight, because it will be a bumpy ride, then celebrate the new when it comes.

Leaders are emerging at Joe’s and the changes they are facilitating are moving the company to the new and desired place that Joe envisioned when he decided to embark on the Lean journey. The transformation from manager to leader has not been easy for Joe’s supervisors and at least one has recognized that he isn’t comfortable with leading change. He embraces the direction Joe is taking the company, but feels he isn’t capable of leading part of the organization on the journey. He is filling a new role at Joe’s and is relieved with the decision he made. 

To paraphrase Mr. Edmondson, be prepared for a bumpy ride with some unusual twists and turns as you embark on the lean journey, trusting that you have made the right decision and that your company will be in a better place on the other side. I will chronicle the process of transforming managers to leaders beginning with the next article.

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