Standard work for leaders

My first attempt at standard work was in 2008, long before my lean days. I had just been promoted to Dealer Principal of a Toyota franchise, after my boss suddenly had to leave for a medical emergency.

There was a short handover that included a colorful spreadsheet that was supposed to tell me everything I needed to know. After some time grappling with the spreadsheet, I went to the Financial Manager and confided in her that it made no sense to me whatsoever and that I was concerned I did not have the required skills for the job.

She said that she would look at it and see if she could explain it to me. Later in the day, she got back to me and told me that the reason it did not make sense to me was because it did not make sense. The formulas were totaling the wrong columns and did not match what the Dealer Management system was communicating. This was why I could not reconcile my understanding to what it was saying.

What a relief, and what a powerful reminder that honesty is the best policy! That day, I learned that just because something looks the part does not mean that it is. If you don’t understand something, ask. The spreadsheet looked very professional – it had complex formulas and was beautifully color coded – but it was useless. I had been told that this document was the Holy Grail of the position, but I found it to be as naked as the emperor in the children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes.

I then realized that if I wanted to cope in my new position, I’d have to start from scratch to learn about the work that had to be done.

I started with the reporting system, as at that time it was the only place I could see. First, I went to see my Financial Manager again, asking her what reports are key to my position. She gave me the key reports and went through them with me to guide me through what she was seeing. I then went to the Managing Director, the Parts Manager and the Service Centre Manager and asked the same questions. At the end of this process, I had a list of reports that I sifted until I had a clear idea of the vital reports. I did the same with the Toyota system, identifying the requirements and the programs that were running. I then set this into daily, weekly, and monthly tasks.


Troublesome problems and threshold concepts

A year into the COVID pandemic, Toyota announced unexpectedly good results, surprising analysts once again when it claimed that its output would not be significantly disrupted by the chip shortage that is crippling its competitors. The company has been stockpiling the chips that go into everything in modern cars, from safety to entertainment and maintenance systems.

Pundits, as usual, have jumped on the news to claim that Toyota is abandoning its sacrosanct principle of Just-in-Time and “zero stock” policy, as they have argued every time the auto industry faces a supply chain breakdown. Few have bothered to investigate Just-in-Time enough to realize it was always meant as a coordination mechanism, conceived by Kiichiro Toyoda to get sites, equipment and people to cooperate better.

As Eiji Toyoda, who was instructed by Kiichiro at that time, explained: “What Kiichiro had in mind was to produce the needed quantity of the required parts each day. To make this a reality, every single step of the operation, like it or not, had to be converted over to his flow production system. Kiichiro referred to this as the ‘just-in-time’ concept. By this he meant: ‘Just make what is needed in time, but don’t make too much.’”

Since the catastrophes of 2011 (earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima meltdown), Toyota has been steadfastly working with its many tiers of suppliers to ensure better coordination across its value network – not just first tier supply chain. The company built stronger relationships and allowed for wiser decision making because of Just-in-Time, not in spite of it.

In many ways, however, the focus on Just-in-Time uncovers a deeper misunderstanding. Lean practitioners know that Just-in-Time is but one pillar of the Toyota Production System, together with customer satisfaction, Jidoka (the lesser known “never pass on a defect” pillar), employee satisfaction (through workload leveling, training to standards and involvement in kaizen) and then the wider foundation of basic stability and mutual trust. It is all too easy to see this “system” as a method to better organize production – but this would mean largely missing the point.

Every second counts

Countries around the world are facing the unprecedented challenge of having to vaccinate their adult population in as quick a time as possible, to protect them from Covid-19 and reopen economies.

Here in Italy, we need to vaccinate around 50 million people (nearly 100 million injections). This titanic effort needs to guarantee complete safety and an excellent “customer experience” to every single person, while limiting the time necessary to administer the jabs and using as few resources as possible to avoid any further impact on the healthcare system’s regular activities.

In other words, we need a brilliant process in place, one that is effective, efficient, and flexible. There is a lot that Lean Thinking can do to contribute to a speedy and safe vaccination campaign, supporting healthcare staff in their daily work. So, when the President of Veneto, Luca Zaia, expressed the need to provide organizational support to the region’s healthcare system, we at Istituto Lean Management made ourselves available.

Our initial observation and supporting activities at two large-scale vaccination hubs – the Palaexpò in Venice and the exhibition center in Vicenza – revealed several potential improvements that, once completed, could make an already strong process safer and significantly more efficient.

In true lean style, we began with the observation of the user experience from the moment they arrive to the vaccination hub to the moment they leave with the vaccine in their arm.


Bringing lean to Nigeria’s small farmers

If we think that one in three people around the world make their living as farmers and that 70% of the food that we consume globally is produced in farms of 10 acres or less, we quickly realize that the potential of bringing Lean Thinking to small-scale agriculture is immense. Indeed, feeding the world’s growing population will require us to embrace innovative approaches to farming and change the narrative that currently exists around small farming as a system that is not competitive and a backward model to move away from.

We are finally seeing this thinking change, partly because of the pandemic, which has showed that small farmers are often more resilient and adaptable. So, why not help them develop into lean enterprises so that we can change agriculture once and for all?

In this article, we will talk about an inspirational project we have been involved in that represents a great example of how lean can be applied to small farming operations. USAID, the US government’s agency responsible for administering foreign aid, has been interested in applying Lean Thinking to agricultural projects in Nigeria – under its Feed the Future Nigeria Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services Activity – to boost the productivity in the sector. Winrock, a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C. and Little Rock, Arkansas, is the implementing partner, and Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND) is a funding partner. USAID owns the lean work we describe below.

It’s often assumed that lean concepts are purely Japanese, but in truth every culture around the world has an efficiency tradition. No culture naturally tolerates waste, especially native ones. Throughout the world, we see a “lean ethos” that we have tried to channel to improve the lives of Nigerian smallholder farmers.


Our project to improve outcomes for Nigeria’s smallholder farmers was based on three key ideas on which conventional thinking and lean thinking differ.

First of all, whereas conventional thinking believes that more is more and that to increase farming output you need to increase input, lean thinking believes that less is more and that to achieve productivity gains you need to strive for waste reduction and value-adding work improvements. Indeed, lean teaches us that, in every endeavor we might observe, there are two types of activities: those that add value and those that generate waste. The idea of focusing on cutting waste to increase productivity works well with smallholder farmers, who don’t have lots of resources and are typically risk adverse.

With this in mind, the first thing to do is analyzing costs and waste in your agricultural operation. Such low-hanging fruit should be targeted before farmers are asked to take on any risks or new investment.

Secondly, conventional thinking follows an agronomist first approach. In other words, it believes in bringing in outside experts to tell farmers what to do. In agriculture, research institutions are the most common source of improvement ideas and innovation. They share the agronomically ideal way (Best Agronomic Practices) to produce a certain crop and offer a way to realize it. Conversely, lean thinking teaches us that those who are putting the seeds in the ground are best placed to identify pain points in the farming process and suggest improvement ideas. Farmers know the work and the waste in the value stream like no one else does. They are nuanced market actors making logical business decisions based on complex, highly particular and constantly changing environmental, economic and social conditions. We believe that their input should be the starting point, not an afterthought.

Finally, conventional thinking tends to quickly move to solutions, even to complex, large-scale problems like poverty. Lean, on the other hand, forces us to slow down and get a deep understanding of the current state before any decisions are made. The solution to global poverty doesn’t lie in sweeping generalizations or quick fixes, but in particular solutions to particular problems – in getting the details right. The right small changes can have a huge impact.


Deep dive in a lean digital company #3

During my third visit to French lean digital group Theodo – read about my previous visits here and here – I am curious to understand how they manage to ramp up their activities and recruit at a speed that matches their growth. (As you will have read in the previous chapters of this story, they are growing despite the pandemic.)

Marie, the group’s Head of HR, is my host today. Staying true to her word when we planned the visit, she takes me straight to her gemba. We immediately enter a room where young men and women – all masked up – are discussing which questions can help assess a candidate’s profile during the recruiting process. “These are the Team Leaders in charge of recruitment, coming from Theodo’s various companies,” Marie confirms. “Some are fully dedicated to recruitment, while others are with us on a part-time basis. We call their teams the Growth Teams, as they recruit to keep up with our growth pace.”

The team is organized as a community of practice and meets for 30 minutes every week to share insights and learnings. Today’s subject is candidates’ interviews and Louis, one of the Team Leaders, is telling the team about his experiments with a new list of questions that were inspired by Geoff Smart and Randy Street’s book Who. His objective is to better assess profiles and improve Theodo’s right-first-time record in recruitment. The discussion is open, with Marie guiding the group on open points and what items on the list could be further improved.


Why is it so hard to do lean without a sensei?

If you practice lean, you have likely had conversations like this. What is going on in these situations? What does the sensei bring to the party? Can’t the executive think for herself? Why does she go quiet?

When cooking bacon and eggs, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. To understand how people react, we need to look at where they have skin in the game. The sensei’s commitment is to the logic – and then to the gemba, the practice – of lean. The executive’s commitment is to getting things done.

The sensei is following the (lean) logic of the argument: capacity needed for a new product –> more changeovers without losing capacity –> SMED kaizen exercises with the teams to learn to realize changeovers safely, with good quality (last good part, first good part) and much more quickly. It’s a clear-cut learning curve.

The executive doesn’t disagree, but her brain is being flooded with cortisol – the stress hormone. She sees all the guys she needs to convince, all the workshop she needs to organize, all the time and expense this is going to take and the horrid risk of failure due to the usual resistance to change, all the fights with her middle managers. Her brain is cooking in stress and her body just wants to fight or flight – either get the sensei to say something else or run away.

But the executive is not stupid – if the sensei’s logic is clear enough, her neocortex will reassert itself, and she will start thinking about how to get from here to there.

Left to herself, however, the executive will find it very hard to think this through. As she plans her route to success, stress will make her disregard all the scariest ideas, those she feels won’t be possible to realize right away. Brilliant strategic thinkers are those who don’t shy away from difficulty and end up deciding that the safest place to land in France on D-Day, for instance, is on beaches with huge cliffs defended by machine guns. Crazy on the face of it, but brilliant as a strategic move – if we crack this upfront, the road beyond is a home run.

Thinking against oneself, as Jacques Chaize (one of my co-authors) puts it, is hard and an acquired skill requiring practice. This is where sensei help. They don’t need to be brilliant coaches, supernatural thinkers, or blazingly insightful. They need to know their stuff and get you to face the logic of “how” you’re going to achieve your “why.”

Without a sensei, the executive will naturally come up with a vague “Hail Mary” plan that stresses the intent but shies away from the hard waypoints, relying instead on high-level concepts and general ideas without actually setting concrete priorities and activities. And the same will happen at the plan implementation phase.


Pull: a way forward for supply chains

One thing Covid-19 has unequivocally proved is that global supply chains in every industry are broken. When the pandemic began, we saw this in the empty shelves of supermarkets around the world. Today, we see this in the painfully slow vaccine rollout experienced by many countries as a result of supply issues. The fact that global supply chains are broken is not new (although current conditions seem to be even more dire than usual), but the fact that now everyone knows they are broken is. Also not new is the fact that the method that could dramatically improve the situation is getting blamed for the failure: the pull system devised by Toyota more than half a century ago, known as Just-In-Time. So it is timely indeed that Christoph Roser has launched his new book, All About Pull Production.

What is a pull system? Here’s a few words of context.

Roser’s book dives deeply into the ins and outs of “pull”, a method of matching supply with demand that is widely referenced but poorly understood. The commonly accepted academic definition of pull has been offered by Wally Hopp and Mark Spearman, who claim in their influential 2004 paper (Manufacturing and Service Operations Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring 2004, pp. 133–148) that the defining characteristic of a pull system is the presence of inventory control limits: “A pull production system is one that explicitly limits the amount of work in process that can be in the system.”


Mr Joe and the most important A3 of his life

A3 Thinking can be applied to any human activity and to any environment. Indeed, many people use its basic elements without even knowing. In this article, we are going to follow the story of Mr Joe (in plain text), who is experiencing some health issues that are putting his life in danger. In parallel, we are going to look (in italics) at the care Mr Joe receives, organized around the structure and basic elements of an A3, to give him a long life free of the pain caused by his bad habits.

This way, we hope to understand the role of A3 Thinking in our daily lives and how using it can hugely benefit both our personal and working lives. My objective with this article is help you to learn how to create an A3 that applies to any situation you might face.

Here we go!

Sourced from:

Six digital tools to make your marketing “leaner”

Imagine having to plan the launch of a new product in several countries or hoping to sell it to users with different habits. To communicate with millennials is different to communicating with boomers, and it’s essential to know where each of these categories of buyers are looking to purchase products. To know how 25-year-old John from the US makes purchases compared with 50-year-old Paolo from Italy, companies today need to embrace a structured approach to marketing that incorporates lean principles and fully leverages the power of digital applications.

By investigating and gathering data on trends (on anything from which countries see highest percentages of purchases done through smartphones to how Covid changed buying habits) we can make better decisions.

This data can come from surveys or research, but often times in these cases it’s already obsolete at the time of acquiring it. Even more so during the pandemic (think of how much things have changed between 2019 and today). What to do then? I recommend adopt a “mixed approach” that combines some of the following tools.


The 19 billion doses challenge

This article is a follow-up from the co-authored November 2020 joint Planet Lean and The Lean Post article on COVID-19 vaccine process development experiences, learning, and progress that were framed around the six lean product and process development (LPPD) principles. 

Prior to the pandemic, global demand for vaccines was 5 billion doses per year. This included shots for the seasonal flu, measles, chickenpox, and more. Factoring in the much-needed Covid-19 vaccines, the new estimated global demand for all type of vaccines in 2021 is 19 billion doses – nearly four times the demand we experienced just two years ago.

This massive ramp-up of global capacity requires detailed coordination across the end-to-end value stream to ensure critical raw materials are available and bottlenecks are addressed while simultaneously scaling up new, potentially risky technologies. In this article, I will discuss how lean thinking and practice can help us to succeed at this monumental undertaking.

There are two main challenges we need to address at this stage of fighting the pandemic. I outline them below.

The 19 billion doses challenge