Oct 12, 2006

Be my guest

Last week I participated in a kaizen learning experience conducted by Ron Holcomb of the Lean Learning Center. Jamie Flinchbaugh, one of LLC’s founders, has been incredibly gracious about inviting editors to public training events without charge. I don’t think he does this with the goal of free publicity for the Center – his writing appears often enough to get the company plenty of visibility. I think he does this to make the lean community better by making people like me more knowledgeable and grounded so I do a good job of editing the newsletter. This is important because I get a variety of possible articles and some authors just don’t know what they’re doing. The more I know about lean in the real world, the better I can screen out the junk, and help serious writers get their message across in the best way.

Not only did the Lean Learning Center open their doors to me, but a local company opened their doors to our class of about ten people from other companies. Some of us knew nothing about lean, and some knew a lot. Our companies were diverse. Our host company had about six core people in the on-site sessions, with others drawn in from time to time.

Our class had spent Monday at the LLC’s learning facility, getting the basics of kaizen, activity maps and product-process maps. Most of the people in the class were there so they could go back and facilitate kaizens at their companies, so the training covered how to draw up a team charter, assess the possible kaizen candidates and choose the best, pick the right team members, interface with sponsors productively, teach the process and follow up after the event. It was a lot to take in. Our host company had two people in the class, who were expected to go on to be facilitators in the ongoing program.

On site, Ron led the group in mapping the current state of a bottleneck process. There was a good cross-functional team from the host company who provided the details of the process from start to finish. There was a lot of “I didn’t know you did that,” and “That can’t be true!” in the three days we spent on site.

Most companies don’t want outsiders around when they look at ugliness, particularly in a company in the early stages of lean when there’s plenty of ugly to go around. It was a leap of faith and a sign of management commitment that we were let in. (The company had the right to review the registration list beforehand and bar the participation of anyone who they felt should not come there.) The company was extremely careful to let us know where we could and could not go, and they had good sign-in and sign-out procedures to protect the confidentiality they assured their clients of.

Why did they let us in? Well, we were the “fresh eyes.” We didn’t know their process, and many of us couldn’t understand a lot of the complicated technical talk in the room. But we kept asking questions, and in explaining things to us in detail, they started understanding their own current state better and better. In fact, their process had been mapped not long before, and when the host company’s folks compared the two maps, it was obvious that outsiders had helped them get down to a more revealing level of detail.

Management commitment was good. The operations manager, the kaizen’s key sponsor, was obviously enthusiastic and in the room for most of the three days. The company also had promised that the key process owners would spend all three days in the room, unless the direst problems needed their attention. For a company that was growing fast, and depending on the knowledge of a relatively small number of engineers and technical people, this was a serious sacrifice for potential improvement. Top management came in for presentations by their teams. Some were won over to the cause, and some remained skeptical, but that’s what we expected. It was a start – a foot in the door.

The people taking the class appreciated the chance to learn about kaizen in a real-life situation. We took turns facilitating – trial by fire. I was treated like anyone else in the class, not like an observer.

Everyone left with a gain. Better skills, a better understanding of why kaizens should be conducted in a certain way, and how kaizen fits into the overall system of lean.

My point to you? Open your doors to guests. Make them work by requiring their observations and ideas. Make the lean community better, not just your own operations.

Thank you Jamie, Ron, and all the people who took part in the kaizen experience. I am so grateful to you for investing in me, and in the lean community as a whole.

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