Monday, August 2, 2010

Day 269 – Lean Chops and Blind Faith

Mid 30's Lincoln V12 Victoria. Greyhound hood ornament detail. Lean to be sure, but not a product of lean manufacture.


          Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, once said, “Faith is a state of ultimate doubt.” At least he said something very like it. I heard it in college, and, as my attention at the time was mostly attuned to a plump, spooky co-ed named Pat Hillman, I’m not sure I got it exactly right. Now, when I want to know a little more about it and I want to be able to quote the quote with some authority, I find that I can’t find the quote. I find a lot of paraphrasing, which is okay, but I’d really like the quote for this piece, which is about lean manufacturing.
Kierkegaard had a lot to say about the relationship between faith and doubt, and whatever the point my professor was trying to make 40 some years ago, either about faith or about Kierkegaard, the quote, as I remember it, has stuck with me. I think there is a range of possible interpretations of the quote, from ‘faith is committing to something for which you have no objective proof’ to ‘faith and doubt exist in tension in the human soul.’ Somewhere in the middle is the idea that doubt ultimately defines faith. Without doubt there is no faith. There is instead certainty. Certainty does not require or inspire faith. Mark Twain’s spin on it: “Faith is believing something you know ain't true.”
          It is hard to be a believer—in anything. Belief is demanding. Knowing is not demanding. Knowing is just knowing. When someone wants to get up in your face about what you know, you just trot out your proofs and you are done.
Believers like to act as if they are certain. Certainty is held in high esteem by believers, and believers sometimes attempt to trot out what they believe are proofs. Mere knowers will call them on the scantiness of their proofs, and the believers will be undone. You can’t tart up proofs that don’t prove anything and expect anyone who wants to know to take them at face value. You can’t make proofs without legs attractive enough to get knowers to cheer for their undressing. The believers won’t know that they’ve been undone, of course, because they don’t really rely on proofs. They are believers. It’s when you are a believer but you think you might also like to know a little bit that believing becomes such a bitch.
          This brings us to lean manufacturing. Lean manufacturing philosophy is a religion among its believers. Lean proponents want to adapt lean principles to everything. They keep expanding the Gemba—the place where stuff happens, the area to which one applies lean principles in order to make it lean. It used to be that the Gemba was the plant floor where things got made. Now we have the concept of the lean enterprise. The Gemba has grown like the blob in the movie of the same name, swallowing up territory as it expands. The Gemba now includes the offices—the place where, historically at least, stuff mostly does not happen.
I’m not sure this makes any sense. At its roots lean is about the elimination of waste. Lean wants all activities to add value. A place like an office, specifically a management office where nothing happens, does not add value. The natural inclination of lean is to eliminate offices. You only need to attend one Kaizen event to realize that this is true. When everyone is focused on the creation of value and the elimination of waste, everyone wants to get rid of the paperwork.
The record-keeping function does not add value. The record keepers and transaction recorders who get invited to these events find themselves trying to justify their existence. Kaizen events put a fear into them that they have not experienced before. They realize suddenly that they don’t do anything of value and they need to be eliminated. They will go to great lengths to concoct alleged proofs whose only purpose is to justify the existence of a certain amount of waste as necessary. That this often works is testament, not to the lucidity of the proofs, but rather to the obfuscation offered by the arcane and difficult terminology of the office environment. (We have accountants to thank for this. Luca Pacioli invented double-entry bookkeeping and included a treatise on it in his book, Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita, in 1494. Since then accountants everywhere have used ever more difficult terminology to make what they do seem magical.)
True lean believers want to extend the Gemba to their homes, their hobbies, their sports teams, and their government. I point this out because I would like to know a little more about how this is supposed to work before I start orchestrating Kaizen events around family meal preparation or cleaning the bathrooms. I don’t want to have to overcome a lot of sensible objections with scantily clad proofs about how much better my household is going to be for the implementation of a family-wide lean philosophy. I am not a believer.
          I have pretended to be a believer. I have even tried to be a believer. The fact is though, after three failed organization-wide lean initiatives, I want a little proof. I’d like to see lean work…just once. I’d be happy if it was just on the plant floor, the Gemba where stuff gets made. I’d like to see it work in the place for which lean was originally intended before I start trying to export lean principles willy-nilly to places where believers are in short supply and everyone, reasonably I think, expects some proof before they will follow you off the preserve.
          I know why lean failed at Albatross, twice. The first time it was because the change agent who got the initiative launched didn’t actually have any idea what he was doing. He didn’t know anything about lean beyond cleaning the place up and organizing the work spaces. This much had some impact to be sure. Common sense tells you that it would. Cleanliness is next to godliness. This is an easy faith to keep. However, 5-S (Sorting, Straightening, Shining, Standardizing, and Sustaining) does not make a lean initiative. It is a good idea but it is not sufficient to philosophy. It is not enough to get a truly lean result. When we stopped at the end of 5-S at Albatross because we didn’t know what else to do, we stopped lean. We didn’t see any results falling to the bottom line so we stopped 5-S as well. Lots of us wanted to be believers, but none of us wanted to make a messiah out of the idiot who got us started but couldn’t follow through. He didn’t have the lean chops. Hell, he couldn’t even access his own e-mail account without help from the people who reported to him.
          The second time lean failed at Albatross, it was because everyone was distracted by another initiative. Management launched strategic sourcing, and enlisted virtually everyone with any supervisory capacity into the project to justify the enormous consulting fees. They did this at the same time that they had actually handed over the lean process to someone who understood how it was supposed to work. The new lean champion was suddenly a lone voice crying out in the wilderness, and feasting on locusts and honey. Eventually this baptizer’s head was served up on a platter to someone’s secretarial Salome.
          Lean also failed at my last job. That one is more of a mystery to me. I thought they were going to get it right. They had focus and commitment across the board. They put incentives in place to get everyone, not just trained, but indoctrinated in lean principles. They had a schedule. They had truly high-caliber consultants to shepherd the process. Still the exercise fell on its face in the end. I think it’s because they started in the wrong place. (More on that tomorrow)

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