Book Review: Creating a Lean Culture

A 2006 Shingo Prize Winning Book
by David Mann
Reviewed by Bart Sellers 

A value stream manager for a Tier 1 automobile parts supplier recently declared that the biggest obstacle to sustaining lean is the lack of manager discipline. As examples, he pointed to the day-to-day variation in the schedule of a typical manager. “They don’t even come to work at the same time each day.” He also pointed out that many managers spend less than 5 percent of their time where value is being added. And then rhetorically he asked, “Why are those work instructions and standard operating procedures not being followed? It's because managers fail to follow up!”

Most would agree that leader discipline is necessary for stable operations and to promote an environment of continuous improvement. So then what are the things a manager needs to do to be disciplined? David Mann attempts to answer this question in his 2006 Shingo Prize winning book, Creating a Lean Culture.

Mann is a Ph.D. organizational psychologist working since 1987 for office furniture manufacturer, Steelcase. Working with Toyota-trained consultants, Mann and others at Steelcase have spent the last 10 plus years developing and implementing lean manufacturing. Many of the early lean projects at Steelcase quickly broke down. Mann came to the conclusion that although the lean tools were in place for the operators, supervisors didn’t intuitively understand how to manage the changes. And defining supervisory roles wasn’t part of the consultant’s toolkit. Mann spent the next several years working with the consultants to describe the managerial elements necessary for sustainable lean transformations. 

Using an automobile as a metaphor, Mann breaks these necessary managerial elements into four systems; 1) leader standard work as the engine, 2) visual controls as the transmission, 3) daily accountability as the gas pedal and steering wheel, and 4) discipline as the fuel. Mann then makes the point that just like an automobile, all of these systems need to work together to get you where you want to go.  None of these elements are on the options list - they are all standard equipment.

Standard work is a common lean concept, but leader standard work is much different than the operator standard work that is a focus in most lean transformations. Instead, imagine a management system where almost 90 percent of the operator's, 80 percent of a team leader’s, 60 percent of a supervisor’s, and 40 percent of a manager’s daily work is explicitly defined and standardized. Include in the standard work for the leaders (manager, supervisor, and team lead) up and down accountability that is evaluated on a daily basis (or several times a day) using visual controls. Most of the leader standard work is focused on activities at the place of action (gemba) with the remaining time supporting incremental improvements. Now, you have a picture of lean management according to Mann.

So what happened to all the lean tools and the kaizen events that invariably bring improvement when properly rolled out?  Standard work, visual controls, and Gemba walks are all part of Mann’s approach, but it appears that Mann purposefully avoids discussion of other lean tools. He seems to say, “there are plenty of books out there on lean tools and many do an excellent job.  Lean management is focused on providing the leadership tools to ensure long-term success.”

Mann has a somewhat unique approach to addressing the concept of workplace culture. In a 2005 presentation he talked about the inseparability of work and culture. To prove his point, go ahead and try and describe your own organization in specific terms and you will likely end up with descriptions of how people interact to get things done. Consistent with this is Mann’s concept of, “if you want to change the culture, change the work!”  He doesn’t understate the difficulty in doing this. In the same presentation he pointed out that lean management is not just a new management system, it is a replacement for the existing management system, and everyone has an existing management system even if they haven’t defined it. 

Then there are more challenges. Mann describes something he calls tension management. Tension management is balancing the need to meet today’s production while implementing systems for long-term success. Lastly, the natural consequence of implementing lean is that as waste is eliminated the need for attention to detail increases. This puts even more demands on leaders. 

There is some evidence in health care in support for Mann’s concepts. An executive from a leading lean health care system reported at the 2007 SHS conference that after three years of substantial but decreasingly valuable improvements using kaizen events, the strategy has shifted to focusing on day-to-day management. Another point made in the same presentation was that it takes many improvements to free up substantial time to work on the long-term structural changes.

If Mann is correct that these managerial elements are necessary for long-term success, then could a leader’s response to the concept of lean management be used as a gauge to determine how committed the leader is to a lean transformation?  If a leader balks at changing her or his workday to include committing 40 plus percent of the day to things they probably aren’t already doing, including spending time with operators, and then with the remaining 60 percent of time following up on improvement activities and fitting in all of the “necessary” things they are doing now, then they probably aren’t committed to a full lean transformation.  

Mann does a thorough job of explaining each of the management elements and provides numerous case studies and examples. Although most of these examples are from the factory floor the principles and descriptions are generalized enough that the reader should be able to apply them to health care. For example, Mann has a whole chapter on Sensei and Gemba walks. In health care these walks could be called concurrent rounding or managerial rounds, but not just rounding on patients - rounding on staff and other leaders as they do their work. Mann also addresses several obstacles such as generating buy-in from support organizations and engaging staff through a simple-to-manage improvement program. He also includes checklists (standard work) to audit the implementation in order to sustain. There is also a chapter on leading a lean organization but missing is a discussion of those organizations that may need to drastically restructure in order to even attempt to start down the lean path.

This is an important book that provides content missing from the Toyota Production System strategy books and the many books on lean tools. This book is getting some broad attention. It is mandatory reading in a colleague’s MBA program. Organizations that have already implemented lean tools and are struggling to sustain will find this book valuable. My own organization is attempting to implement lean management in two large support services. There have been some successes and even though it is very difficult no one wants to go back.  Finally, many leaders would do well to adopt the approach Mann has described for increased accountability and discipline even if they are not pursuing lean.

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