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Training Transformations

You Wouldn’t Recognize This Company

Jeff Dewar's picture
Submitted by: Jeff Dewar

The eminent British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who passed away in 2008 at age 90, penned three prediction-based “laws,” the most striking of which is his third law:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

It’s simple to imagine, and you’re carrying an example right now—your smart phone. Imagine going back in time just 20 years to 1995. Yes, we had cell phones... sort of, by today’s standards. If you showed up in 1995 with your iPhone 6S, you could claim that you were abducted by aliens, and as proof show it as an alien device you’d stolen; leading scientists would take you seriously! Many would look at the amazing things it could do and believe that either it or you had magical powers. Undoubtedly some would want to burn you at the stake! Well, OK, maybe not in 1995. But anyway...

Let’s do the reverse. Let’s take a plant manager from a century ago, 1916, during the heyday of Taylorism, and bring him to a modern manufacturing facility, with a well-established culture of ongoing lean transformation. The speed and flexibility of the operation would look like “magic.” The role of the employee would be impossible to believe, even for the most progressive manager of that era.

What if that manager was plucked from the not-so-distant past, as mentioned above, 1995? The amount of change would still be astonishing. Not so much in the technology this time, but certainly in the way employee talent is harnessed, as well as in the way that managers are expected to perform their duties in conformance with their leader standard work (a very unnerving concept to many, akin to handcuffs for management).

Lean has been one of the great disruptors in management practices during the last couple of decades. Dissected and looked at as individual components and concepts, much of it all seems so very logical—in fact, ridiculously so. Yet some of it is so counterintuitive it hardens the cement of resistance to change.

For example, the simple concept of single-piece flow vs. handling things in batches has caused such debate in management meetings that many a consultant has been shown the door for pressing its case.

It's remarkable to watch young managers come up through the ranks, having been raised on the principles of lean and quality, knowing nothing about prior generations’ limiting attitudes, and being able to see lean opportunities everywhere. These are the young managers for whom gemba walking is a natural event instead of an awkward and hesitant one, as it was for managers of a prior era.

In this clip, you can see a lean facilitator help teach clueless managers what gemba walking is, and how to do it the wrong way and then the right way:

Now return your visitor to 1995 and see if he can do a little gemba walking. I bet he’ll get lots of practice explaining to suspicious employees and distressed superiors what on earth he’s up to!

Here’s the question to ask: “Would an employee from 1995 recognize our company today?” If the answer is yes, then maybe your lean transformation hasn’t been quite so “transformative.”