Lean can present itself in many ways. To some, Lean appears as a grassroots initiative and as bottom-up improvement by everyone, everywhere, anytime. Others experience Lean more as a top-down initiative, driven by management and accompanied by standards, audits and specialists. Indeed, Lean can be seen as a many-faced phenomenon; almost as if Lean has a Multiple Personality Disorder.
So, what is Lean’s true face? How do we explain Lean’s different personalities to the workforce?
Sure, Lean’s heart is gradual, incremental and continual improvement by all; summarized in one word by the Japanese as Kaizen. It engages the whole workforce in contributing to the overall goal of the organization. Kaizen taps into the potential of everyone, builds skill and develops pride. What’s not to like, in fact?
In reality, however, I often see companies struggling with the concept of Kaizen.
On one hand, teams frequently lack the autonomy to actually bring about effective change in their environment. They do not have the responsibility or authority to change the things that they feel need to be changed. The result regularly is that teams get frustrated and managers get overburdened by lots of follow-up work and escalations.
On the other hand, management is wondering how all this energy and all these suggestions for improvement can be channeled into the right direction for the organization as a whole. And how can they do so without frustrating the workforce when they suddenly seem to be very selective about their suggestions?
All in all, not an easy concept to practice it seems.
And then there’s Lean’s top down personality. In many cases, Lean is perceived as a new, top-down management fad by the workforce. Specialists with new titles from hitherto unknown offices inundate the shop floor. And they are accompanied by new ways of working, corporate standards, audit forms and I-don’t-know-how-many checklists. No wonder the workforce follows with Argus eyes.
Still, top-down guidance is required, many will argue. Leadership by top managers provides clarity; it drives a company forward in a concerted way. Surely, Lean can never be successful without this type of top-down leadership, can it? Even more, wasn’t Hoshin Kanri or policy deployment an intrinsic part of Lean?
So, what ís Lean’s true face?
In my opinion Lean is neither one nor the other, it is both. It should be seen as a system of improvement in which both top-down leadership and bottom-up improvement by all have an important and interacting role to play.
I still vividly remember the strong discussions I occasionally had with some plant directors at one of my former employers. It was a company with a very strong production system culture in place, similar to Toyota’s well-known production system. When confronted with important deviations from this system, I customary asked why they thought they could deviate from a system that was seen as the cumulative experience of more than 100 plants during more than 20 years. Before trying to re-invent the wheel, we expected our plants to first apply the standards to improve. They did not come about just like that. They could of course always choose to wear another company logo on their workwear if they wanted… At the same time, I was always interested to find out where and why these standards did not lead to the expected performance. As this could indicate an opportunity for bottom-up improvement of the production system. The system, after all, was a hypothesis that could be further improved. And when an improvement has been identified, others in the group should benefit from the improvement through deployment of the improved system.
Top-Down and Bottom-Up: the Yin and Yang of Lean
It shows that for me, Lean is neither top-down nor bottom-up; it is both. You need both. Improvements that are standardized into the system of work should be deployed across an organization in a top-down fashion. Companies cannot afford not to tap into the cumulative experience of the whole organization. At the same time, this implies that they should tap into this cumulative experience by enabling bottom-up improvement followed by standardization.
Top down improvement without bottom-up improvement is like running on empty; you will soon be lacking the gas needed to fuel your deployment. You will lack the substance and detail required to actually improve your operations. Top-down improvement alone will quickly get disconnected from the actual operation.
The other way around, I am sure that bottom-up improvement without top-down improvement will come to a grinding halt as well. Bottom-up improvement alone lacks the guidance and support required to truly have an impact. As a result, bottom-up improvement alone will quickly be meaningless to the workforce. Consequently, bottom-up improvement initiatives without the top-down context will often be short-lived.
In practice, it is not easy to find the right balance between top-down and bottom-up. But one thing is for sure: to become an effective Lean organization, you need to practice both in a systemic way!