A sense of heritage in an uncertain world

In a market where products become obsolete very fast, this Toyota supplier has learned the importance of staying true to its heritage and developing know-how and people’s capabilities.

Kato-san is the president of Avex in Japan and is very conscious of the heritage his father and grandfather bequeathed to him: “I would summarize it as know-how (grinding and machining small parts with high accuracy), the art of craftmanship (monozukuri), and the absolute need to develop people (hitozukuri) to ensure the company will last 100 years and more.”

Kato-san had to learn his job from senior workers, as his father died when he was still a student. Yet, the heritage has held strong for 70 years and three generations. You can see traces of it everywhere in Avex. Take craftmanship as an example: Avex prides itself of having an in-house approach to feeding machines, maintenance and building IoT. The daily cleaning of the machines is done with both know-how and care.

Today, I am visiting Avex’s Tado plant, which manufactures auto transmission valves and is a tier-2 supplier of Toyota and of other carmakers.

Life for Avex hasn’t been a bed of roses. “In fact, the work we have now will someday disappear, as the car industry moves towards hybrids and electric vehicles,” says Kato-San. The company knows this and is prepared for it, because it happened before: Avex actually started making with parts for sewing machines, until the market shrank and production moved overseas; then they turned to small parts for 8mm projectors, but those too disappeared when video came; then they manufactured brake parts, but the industry switched to resin.

This is why, instead of focusing too heavily on the products (which keep changing), the company concentrates on the technology and know-how so they can be used in different markets. They are already testing out new opportunities: they have started to produce parts for the Mirai (hydrogen fuels), while also looking at agriculture and co-generation (converting gas into electricity). Kato-san smiles and tells me: “Competition in Japan is fierce. Younger generations are also losing interest for cars. And, by the way, our 40-cent auto transmission valve is installed in cars that range in price from $15,000 to $200,000.”

The resilience of Avex is unbelievable. The 2008 crisis had a big impact on their sales but they recovered quickly and without any lay-offs. No wonder Kato-San keeps an eye on all external threats. “I believe that my role, as President, is to split my time between customers, both to understand their needs and to seek opportunities for diversification, and the gemba. My job is to go and see.”

By the way, external threats are regularly shared with employees: twice a year, all plant members gather to learn about the company’s situation and, every month, the President explains the results and the long-term vision in each plant.

The management approach at AvexAs Kato-san tells me this, I am impressed: to me, looking at threats without blinking and preparing for them, and relying on a strong heritage and common values to steer the company towards a bright future is an art. Avex shows the way and gives meaning to what each Avex employee does every day.

“We constantly strive to produce a good and reliable product and we try hard to be a company that serves society, through job creation and taxes,” Kato-san says. He is thinking of Toyota’s famous equation of Profit = price – cost and confirms to me that his role is to make Avex competitive in Japan. He refuses to offshore production or part of it to a lower-cost country to stay in the market.

Avex employs 400 people today (it was 100 in 2008), with two plants and a Techno Centre (created in 2012 to improve the cutting/grinding process for hard materials with low tolerance – linear solenoids, + or – 2 microns). In addition to longer term threats, the immediate challenge for the company is simple to understand: the automotive business requires 1 to 2% productivity improvement from suppliers every year. Kato-san has therefore summarized it in a simple internal challenge, whereby everything is to be halved: the tolerances on the products to improve accuracy, the costs, and the lead-time. “We have to kaizen all the time. Everyone must have the sense of kaizen, the sense of urgency, of challenge.”

And this confirms, as we start our gemba walk, that the most critical topic for the company is the development of people (after all, machines don’t kaizen and don’t perceive urgency, threats and competition).


As a supplier eager to satisfy its clients, Avex listened carefully over the years to the values and concepts Toyota promoted up and down its supply chain. “Respect for people” particularly resonated with the leaders of the three generations of Avex.

The Tado plant is not close to any major urban area (although, arguably, in Japan a major urban area is never too far away) and recruits people who wish to stay in the area, as their elders did before them. As the Japanese workforce decreases, competition gets fiercer among would-be employers, which makes it very important for them to offer an attractive workplace. So, how to find a balance between ambitious work challenges (the sense of urgency Kate-san was talking about) and a rich life with their family? What needs to be done so that employees find joy in their work?

The Kaizen activities we see on the gemba are an answer to both. As Avex employees improve their work environment and reduce defects, they both keep Avex competitive and experience autonomy and pride.

Trolleys are designed by the technicians themselves and adapted to their needs and height. Parts coming out of a machine fall softly on a turning table and this is the result of a kaizen, to prevents parts from falling on top of each other and thus generating scratches.

As we move over, we see many such examples of feeding or downloading equipment that are a clear Jidoka concept, where the machine should have full autonomy and not require a human resource to stay over, watch it, feed it and collect the parts. This is also a result of the “respect for people” ethos the company has, by the way, and the importance of giving human beings value-added work to do, if only to retain them and make them happy to come to work.

Forty collecting machines have been installed to collect the parts form the grinding machines, thus freeing up the technicians and allowing them to perform other tasks, such as maintenance, or designing and building other feeding or collecting machines in the Jidoka promotion section.

At Avex, kaizen is managed through Quality Control Circles (each with 4 or 5 team members). This is demanding because each has to perform his or her work and attend the QC circle, but this is the point – to make the daily work easier. As we now know, kaizen and QC Circles aren’t only meant to solve problems (0 defect) and improve work (0 muda). They also contribute to the development of skills in terms of presentation, communication, collaboration, and leadership. As we stand close to the QC circle board on the floor of the 90 grinding machines, we can see that each QC Circle member actually self-assesses against the above skills to see whether they are making progress. One of the underlying objectives of kaizen activities is to promote teamwork!

Kato-san is clear on this: “I often go to the gemba to see the kaizen, a simple form of recognition for the work done. And if the kaizen is successful, I praise the people responsible for the result.” In addition, formal kaizen presentations are held every year, which top management attends to advise and praise. Avex has designed a one-page sheet to present the kaizen that details the “why”, the current state, the factor analysis, investigation and measures, a check of course, a new or changed standard and reflection on what they learned and what the future steps could be. The first objective of those presentations is motivation, of course, as workers get to discuss with management, and incentives are granted to the teams (never to individuals). But also yokoten (rolling out the results of the kaizen to other departments), as everyone can learn from the experience of others. By the way, kaizen presentations are not limited to workers, but also supervisors and Sales and Administration staff.

The average age at Avex is 30 and the 6% turnover ratio is in part represented by those young people leaving because they don’t see a future. “HR development remains one of the key challenges in our hoshin,” sighs Kato-san. Consequently, in addition to kaizen, the company is developing a career plan for each team member.

Early obsolescence of products forces Avex to focus on technical know-how


Talking about challenges and difficulties is one thing, but we should remember that Avex knows its TPS inside out. No bad parts are passed on to the customer, with the customer ppm at 1 to 2 defects per 10 million parts delivered! As the internal defect rate can be higher, a final inspection of parts is done systematically. As our gemba walks continues, we see that the collecting of parts is now being done by in-house robots. When we reach the final inspection area, we see robots in use there, too: they can inspect more items than the human eye. True to the craftmanship heritage, Avex sent operators to university to learn how to design and maintain machines, and they are progressively adding an IoT know-how to their skills.

They work with their Toyota Tier-1 customers in a pure Just-in-Time way. “Just-In-Time,” says Kato-san, “is a system to develop human skills and to connect across the supply chain.”  The order is received the day before, kanbans are printed and the entire production is pulled (Avex produces 84 million parts a year). Do not ask Avex what happens if they are late to complete one of the two trucks they have scheduled per day. They are never late. Their buffer inventory in finished goods is just one day and this means that, if a machine breaks, they need to have enough skills to repair the machine within 24 hours.

Again, true to the craftmanship heritage, Total Production Maintenance is a well-honed process in Avex, which means they can buy second-hand machines and reuse them, thus achieving an 80 % capex reduction versus a new machine. Every day, operators spend 10 minutes cleaning their machines. By the way, operators in Avex are called technicians and there is no dedicated maintenance team. Technicians do far more than operating machines. Parts are 100% guaranteed: operators therefore need to understand their machine very well. “My machine is my child” is their motto. As it often happens in Japan, Senior Operators educate Junior ones. Two days are dedicated to preventive maintenance every year, with all the technicians involved.

Just imagine the second floor of Tado, which houses 90 grinding machines. The company is gradually moving from one operator per machine to one for up to five machines, with a target to get to one for ten machines. With the idea of “respect for people” and the “no lay-offs” policy, the role of the human is more and more to design, maintain, kaizen machines – rather than to produce parts. Today, 70% of the company’s employees work in production and 30% in non-production functions (from management to logistics and maintenance), whereas in the future this will probably be reversed.

As I raise the question of production flexibility, Kato-san smiles: all machines are on wheels to allow reconfiguration. The Tado plant is dedicated to the high runners and mass production, so one machine is dedicated to one product. But the Nagoya plant is designed for smaller series and does many change-overs during the day.

With external threats like the obsolescence of your products or the need to find new market opportunities and new customers, those who can offer the best know-how and the flexibility to start small series of parts on demand will survive. Avex seems well prepared for both.


Catherine Chabiron photograph

Catherine Chabiron is a lean coach and member of Institut Lean France.

Lean caters for our product development needs

NOTES FROM THE GEMBA – This French company has completely transformed its approach to designing and introducing new products to market by embracing lean product development ideas.

You will probably never have heard of Friginox, nor about the group it belongs to, ALI. And unless you were born in the area, you probably never visited Villevallier, the small town nestled up against the Yonne river where Friginox has a 10,000-square-meter production site. Yet, this company – which supplies equipment to restaurants and hotels – recently won a Sirha Innovation Award for its latest design: a catering cabinet that can maintain food at constant temperature during transport and service.

It may not seem like much to those not working in the industry, but the great innovation of this cabinet on wheels is that it is very flexible and can handle both hot dishes (up to 80°C) and cold ones (as low as 1°C). Previously, customers who needed to store both hot and cold dishes would have to buy two cabinets.

I never pass on an opportunity to see a real example of improved flexibility, and this is the reason why I am now meeting R&D Manager Rafael Venancio in Villevallier. I am curious to learn whether the design of the new cabinet was influenced by lean engineering. I am also eager to find out about Rafael’s participation in the Lean Engineering Academy, a France-based group of lean engineers engaging in product design and development. (This community, created, supported and coached by Michael Ballé and Cecile Roche, was started in 2010 with the aim to learn and run experiments on how lean can boost engineering and bring more value to customers. Members host the group in turns, spending the day on the gemba and experimenting as a team.)


Upon greeting me, Rafael explains that Friginox is a leader in the French market of large equipment for catering. “We wanted to try our luck with smaller equipment, with one concept in mind: promoting flexibility, as this was a request from our major customers, while keeping things simple,” he tells me.

Friginox had already tested the concept on a small table container that provides both quick cooling and hot holding functions. Unfortunately, the model didn’t sell too well, because this kind of small table equipment is not Friginox’s usual line of business and the company was priced out of the market. What they earned, however, was the experience and the confidence they needed to get started with a new multi-function product range.

“We have always used professional exhibitions to give us the takt time to release new, ready-to-sell products. But in May 2017, we changed our approach and decided to introduce the prototype of a new range of multi-function products and to stick to the deadline of October 2017, when the next Exhibition would take place,” Rafael says, as we put on our safety shoes and move over to the shop floor.

Eighty people work at Friginox, and only four of them in the R&D department. The engineering team can readily test our designs and prototypes or confirm assembly issues together with the production team.

There are three workshops in the production area:

  • One receives the sheets of stainless steel, punches them and folds them into forms (sides, partitions, boxes, doors, tanks, etc): machines here are rather multi-purpose and work on production orders.
  • The second one injects a polyurethane foam in the equipment housing to ensure insulation: while certain large flat panels are handled by a dedicated machine, more sophisticated shapes are injected on a make-to-order basis, in machines designed for that specific shape.
  • The last workshop is where (manual) assembly takes place: here, doors, locks, electrical and cooling elements, cabling and control commands are made to order.

Rafael says: “The big change we brought into this last workshop is the picking that is prepared ahead of each assembly and dispatched to each of the workstations. This way, the operator will have everything at hand as he works.” Although it is not the purpose of my visit, it’s nice to hear Rafael confirm that the new approach largely reduced work-in-progress on the shop floor.


Foam injection at FriginoxWhat Rafael wants me to see is the second workshop, where foam is injected: “One of the key lean engineering concepts we used is the set-based approach. When we started designing our new product in May 2017, we decided to study different options to perform the foam injection. Should we do it panel by panel? Should we do it as one complete shape? In this case, would we have to design a dedicated injection press? These were some of the questions we were trying to answer.”

As our investigation continued, it looked like each option would impact the design of the product itself. Each had its advantages and downsides. The team tried to keep their options open as late as they could, but when the October deadline for the functional prototype got close, they decided to go for the safest option – the panel-by-panel injection – although the small size of the cabinets made the handling and finishing harder in the big press.

The concurrent design of the industrial tool and the product itself is not new to Rafael, as the choice of the foam injection tool severely impacts the product options. Keeping options open as late as possible, however, was. They used the same approach for a number of key changes they wanted to bring to the new cabinets, beyond the hot-and-cold multi-function:

  • Should they stick to their standard door lock or design a “signature” lock? One of their lock suppliers took the challenge but then failed to design something reliable ahead of the Exhibition where the prototype would be launched. (By the way, sticking to known standards is also very lean.)
  • Given the short delay, should they target a product range of models of different sizes or just present one model at the Exhibition? They wisely decided in the end to present only one model, but they see their investigation of a product range as a major step forward. Components, such as the thermoblock (the hot holding device), have already been designed to fit any other model of the future range. If they had not designed with a range of products in mind, the selected options may not have suited the future models.
  • Should they have the thermoblock at the back or below the cabinet? Should the loading of the catering bins be done through the width of the trolley or the depth? Would their standard magnetic seal fit the hot-and-cold multi-function or would they need to find a new seal for the door?

Developing a product using set-based concurrent engineeringRafael confirms: “This really was a major change in our design method, both thanks to the takt time we gave ourselves – we wanted to be ready for the Exhibition, no matter what – and to the set-based approach. In hindsight, I can tell that we tried to embrace too many changes at once and this is a lesson learned for the future. Lean engineering is a conscious choice between what will change and what will not in the new model, which known standards should be used and which knowledge gaps should be addressed. That being said, until then, we had never been able to study and finalize such a high number of changes in the course of just five months. Whatever part was to be incorporated in the prototype, we knew we would be able to produce it in serial life. In fact, what we presented at the Exhibition in October 2017 was closer to a pre-series than to a mock-up.”All the options were studied and the list narrowed down – most of it ahead of the Exhibition, where Friginox presented the first functional prototype of the new product.

The use of set-based concurrent engineering had two main implications for Friginox. First of all, the supply of components was launched much later than usual, as a result of keeping options open. However, a thorough monitoring of orders and a good partnership with suppliers enabled the company to be ready and on time. Secondly, when you work to takt time and want to test options, you can’t wait for problems to appear: you have to go and actively look for them. (You end up thinking carefully about what could possibly go wrong – “good products come for good thinking”, says Toyota.)


For Friginox, the October 2017 Exhibition was the first time showing up with a prototype. Up until then, they had considered such occasions as an opportunity to sell and pamper customers, rather than gauge people’s potential interest in new products. This time, they had face-to-face discussions with potential buyers about the prototype, which helped them refine the product based on what customers truly value.

Rafael takes me to the R&D office, where a board is dedicated to both the problems the department has stumbled upon and those it had anticipated. There is nothing fancy about it, but it represents a thorough attempt to list the issues (yellow post-its) for the three major topics the company is concerned about: safety, functionalities and mechanics. The visual board displays all kind of concerns with the prototype – assembly, usage, reliability. It is quite empty now, but over the course of 2018, as Friginox refined the product and moved towards serial life, each yellow post-it note in turn carried pink, blue or green notes. Pink (they could not find red ones) represents problems the department doesn’t know how to solve; blue stands for sticky issues for which the department is trying something out; green refers to situations the department knows what to do about, but that were delayed due to other activities.

Lean problem solving at Friginox

One way to anticipate problems and possibly find solutions is to tear down competitors’ products. The R&D team bought two such products and thoroughly studied their strengths and weaknesses. By doing this, they discovered Friginox was behind their competitors in the steam moistening for the heating function. They worked hard to close the gap, to the point they now believe they have overtaken the competition (they are still closely monitoring their solution, though).

The analysis of the competitors’ products also revealed there were a lot of opportunities for Friginox to do better than its competitors when it came to the handles used to move the cabinet around and the securing of external accessories (the water collection tank of one of the competitors’ products, even though it was beautifully designed, regularly fell off during transport or even while standing still).

Friginox had performed competitive tear-downs before, but the Lean Engineering Academy clearly pushed them to perform it thoroughly, to challenge options or try out new ideas. “Discussing the prototype with customers and tearing down competitors’ products helped us understand where we could increase the value for our customers,” Rafael confirms.

In fact, as we discuss, I remember the “doctrine” the Chief Engineer of the first Toyota Corolla established on delivering a successful model. He called it an “80-point + Alpha approach”: 80 basic elements that can’t be missed and a plus, an Alpha, that would delight the customer. “Aren’t those yellow post-its on the board the 80 points that can’t be missed, Rafael?” I ask. As he nods, I continue: “What would your Alpha be, then?”

Rafael smiles, and explains: “The obvious Alpha is the multi-functionality, the possibility to use the cabinet both for cooling and maintain hot dishes at temperature. This is really new in the market. But we also tried to keep the control command very simple: all you need to switch from one function to the other is the push of a button, whereas our competitors require the user to switch on, then select function, then validate, and so on. That’s certainly the first competitive advantage.”

Lean product development at French manufacturer Friginox

But there are more pain points in the usage of the cabinet that the new design takes care of:

  • The water that accumulates inside the trolley as a result of condensation on the door seal used to trickle down and eventually make its way to the carpet floor of VIP restaurants. The team worked on it and came up with a way to collect the water at the bottom of the door. Competitive advantage number 2.
  • Cabinets like this one are typically equipped with racks, which must be removed in order to be properly cleaned. The slides on which the catering bins rest have been completely re-designed both to avoid deformation under heat or cold (which caused the racks to become stuck) and to offer an easy cleaning (stamped walls rather than metallic slides). Here’s the third competitive advantage Friginox’s new product enjoys.

Rafael comments: “This is really something we improved thanks to the Lean Engineering Academy. Before, we would have considered an 80% OK score on usage issues good enough, as our competitors do.” But Friginox now targets 100%, and the alpha for each new major release. The big change here is that new products are now designed to make life easier for the end user, not just to sell the product.

Lean theory makes sense, but it is not so easy to stay true to it. The real challenge is keeping up the “good thinking” every day, with daily delivery targets overwhelming you. Indeed, Rafael confirms that he and his team have learned to sit down and think every time “something weird is going on”. They might not yet have reached the stage where they love problems, but they are at least looking for them actively instead of running away from them!

The company launched production and sales of the new cabinet in mid-2018 and decided to put forward the product for the 2019 SIRHA Exhibition innovation contest. In December last year, they were asked to present the product in front of a jury of 10 experts. The next day (during a Lean Engineering Academy session), they found out they had won the award.

The cabinet product is now on sale, but the tests haven’t stopped. “Tests, whether on ageing or repetitive usage have always taught us plenty, including things we were not looking for,” Rafael says. One such test aimed to see what would happen if the cabinet operator used tap water rather than soft water for the steam moistener. Sure, with tap water the cabinet doesn’t work, but the team has learned the effects of this usage and can now use this knowledge to diagnose issues faster during after-sale servicing. In the process, they also detected some flaws in the sealing that were then corrected.


So, what will the team try out next?

Rafael shows me a recently-completed concept paper for a new design they are working on. It includes a classical “what, for whom, when, at which target cost”, but also a list of critical performances the product can’t fail, what it will compete against, what will not change from previous models, and what knowledge gaps need to be filled.

“I had not used a concept paper for previous projects, including the hot-and-cold cabinet, but it turns out it’s an excellent tool to clarify what we want to do. Before putting the concept paper together, I thought we all agreed on the target of the current design, but this turned to be much less clear than we thought,” Rafael admits.

Another thing he plans to do is to visit customers in their own facilities to see and discuss usage problems. He plans to change the way expectations are captured, by introducing a discussion on trade-offs. For example, customers prefer moving food around in plastic crates (easier to handle than grids), but the time to cool or freeze the food will in that case be longer or require larger and more powerful devices. Where do they put the cursor between “time to cool or freeze” and “small-size equipment”? Based on that, a QFD matrix could be built that will compare customer expectations with the functionalities that are built into the product (a great opportunity to check what is really needed or what is not, and what is critical because it is meeting many of customer needs).

Rafael concludes: “We have learned a lot in this Lean Engineering Academy. But, as always in lean, we have to introduce one new experiment at a time if we are to truly gauge the impact of each individual action we take. If we try too many things at once, it will be hard to learn from our results.”


Catherine Chabiron photograph

Catherine Chabiron is a lean coach and a member of Institut Lean France.

Lean delivery

NOTES FROM THE GEMBA – After re-insourcing its bike repair workshop, a distribution center of France’s La Poste has begun to recover long-lost knowledge about the work of mailmen and using it to innovate.

La Poste, France’s national postal service company, runs a sorting and distribution center in Roubaix, in the north of the country, which I am visiting with Nathalie Lagrenée, North Operations Director. Nathalie is one of the very few women lean leaders I know, and every day she lives and breathes the essence of lean thinking: learning from the gemba.

Nathalie wants me to see an interesting experiment that started in Roubaix in 2016. Laurent, manager of the center, remembers when they first started: “Our postmen heavily rely on their electric bikes to manage their deliveries. They learn to ride them, and they adjust them to their needs (height, brakes, load balancing over the various compartments) until they feel completely comfortable with them. Up until 2016, malfunctions or safety issues typically turned out to be a big nuisance, because the bike had to be sent out to an external servicing facility to be repaired and our postmen had to switch to a replacement bike they didn’t trust for an unspecified number of days.”

In fact, because the repair center is not in the same location, the bikes in need of fixing were batched to optimize the load of the transportation vehicle. The transfer would only be arranged once a minimum number of bikes was reached. Add the waiting time for repair and collection, and it is not surprising that the lead-time varied between 7 to 30 days, not to mention the complexity of having to maintain a number of replacement bikes at the center. The consequence was that safety issues and basic preventive maintenance were at times by-passed or looked over by postmen, to avoid losing their precious vehicle.

A postman's bike“In 2016, we saw a great opportunity to solve the problem,” Laurent continues. “We decided to insource the bike repairing activities and set up an internal workshop. We had a volunteer to manage it, Pascal, and this turned out to be a blessing.”

In the meantime, Nathalie, Laurent and I reach the workshop, walking past several postmen busy sorting letters and parcels by street number. The job of postmen, in France like in the rest of the world, is changing dramatically: they used to have a monopoly on mail distribution, whereas they now find themselves in a fast-changing world where the number of letters is constantly decreasing, replaced by objects, ranging from magazines to parcels, that have to be distributed. They also face a lot of competition in last-mile delivery.

Even though Roubaix is a hub for e-commerce platforms and the volume of parcels it handles is ever-increasing, the sorting workstation has not been adapted to the size of the new objects yet – a key challenge here. However, the postmen’s mail bags have been redesigned and the bikes now carry large trunks that can accommodate small parcels.


Nathalie tells me: “I wanted to show you this bike workshop because we have proof that its lean turnaround is now a reality, thanks to Pascal and Laurent’s support. Bike repairs, which were once batched, are now handled in a continuous flow, pulled by Pascal. Bikes are out of service for maximum 48 hours, down from the previous 7 to 30 days, much to the postmen’s satisfaction.”

We are now entering the small bike workshop that Pascal created. He is working on a bike right now: the user of the bike had encountered a problem the day before and asked Pascal to have a look at it while she was preparing for her round. Pascal has secured it on a lift and is just finishing the 36-point check he has designed himself. “It doesn’t take long, and I had the opportunity to do it while I was fixing the bike,” he explains with a smile.

I ask him how he organizes his day and the bike repairs and he shows me what turns out to be his production plan on an Excel sheet: “First of all, I rely on the complete set of checks that each postman is expected to perform on her bike once a month. If they flag something up, I pull the bike out of service and work on it. Every two months, whether they have raised issues or not, I take each bike in for a complete check-up.” Pascal tries to level the work on bikes pulled either for repair or maintenance, but – as we witness while we talk to him – he also handles Jidoka calls whenever immediate action is required.

Thanks to an intuitive Excel file designed with help of the Controlling Department and to the visual management of stocks, Pascal can autonomously manage his inventory of parts and trigger replenishment when needed.

The postman bike repair workshop in Roubaix


Postmen have a demanding job few of us know about: not only do they get up early in the morning to perform the last manual sorting of mail ahead of distribution and ride their bikes around our towns and cities in any kind of traffic and weather condition, but they are also expected to sell. The drop in the volume of traditional mail led La Poste to transform their large network of postmen into a door-to-door salesforce that distributes, and sometimes even promotes new services (or offers from local stores).

It is hard enough to manage all the potentially-dangerous situations inside a plant and prevent accidents, but out there in the streets and along country roads, the risk of accident is everywhere – curbs, dogs, vehicles, slippery conditions, and so on. Because the new flow-based system ensures swift repairs, postmen are now opening up about their doubts and the problems they experience on their rounds. The numbers speak for themselves: there were 198 repair orders in 2015, 214 in 2016, 350 in 2017 (as insourcing started to ramp up), and more than a 1,000 in 2018. This last figure was achieved not only as a result of additional requests, but also because the postal delivery center in nearby Bondues asked if Pascal’s workshop could repair their bikes too.

The first consequence of the re-insourcing of repairs was that the number of accidents caused by faulty bikes decreased drastically. The number of work accidents linked to bikes decreased by 90%, the number of lost workdays from 284 days in 2016 to 0 in 2017-2018.


The second consequence of the switch to small batches of repairs and to just-in-time is that the overall stock of bikes has been reduced by close to 10 %, as fewer replacement bikes are needed.

Fewer bikes means less square meters used for bike storage, space that can now be used for something that creates more value – like dojos, as I will show you in a moment. Marine, the lean expert on site, explains that the bike workshop initially measured 50 square meters. It later grew to around 100 square meters before being shrunk down to 30. Pascal adapted to the layout, but says he misses the area that was once separated from the rest of the workshop by a door, which meant he could walk out of the workshop without necessarily having to store all tools and parts. Laurent points out with a smile: “On the other hand, it forces you to keep it tidy and organized at all times.” Pascal nods and adds: “Sure, and because the workshop is now right next to the postmen’s sorting work stations, we have also seen an improvement in the flow of information.” Indeed, there is a board that postmen are using to flag up malfunctions.

lean visual management at La Poste

But Pascal went one step further with the idea of sparing materials and resources: as he worked on bike overhauls, he started a recovery process for parts that would have otherwise gone to straight to the bin. One such example is bike bags: he recovers those that are in good shape (but being replaced by larger trunks designed to carry small parcels) and fits them on the bikes that don’t need trunks or need both trunks and bags.

He also breaks apart scrap bikes to recover spare parts. “Anything that is related to safety, such as brakes or tyres, we buy,” Pascal explains, “because we can’t risk it there.” His attitude towards the job reminded me of a DIY enthusiast: he tears down, studies, learns, sets apart, re-uses, and so on. He recently placed anti-fatigue mats on the floor that were being discarded from the postmen’s sorting stations and started to use them for his own place of work.

Small gains are piling up at Roubaix, enabling the center to re-invest in smaller tools, like a grinder, to manufacture small parts and conduct experiments.


Fixing bikes and innovating the postmen's workThis bike repair re-insourcing is decidedly a horn of plenty. As the conversation with Pascal continues, it becomes evident that, thanks to him, La Poste is recovering lost know-how on one of its core tools, the postman bike. When the bikes were being repaired outside, the repair job would be strictly focused on the requests listed in the order. If anything was learned during the repair, it was lost to La Poste. If anyone had an idea for something that could be useful but didn’t appear on a request, it simply wouldn’t be done – as it could not be charged for.

Pascal, on the other hand, sees each repair as an opportunity to learn. He shows us the rim tapes equipping bikes recently purchased. He finds them too large, too rigid, the result being that the tyre does not correctly adhere to the wheel. This way there is an increased risk of flat tyres or punctures and, true to himself, Pascal is replacing those rim tapes with old ones he has recovered from scrapped bikes.

He is, he adds, in constant contact with the DT, the Technical Department of La Poste, which has confirmed his observations on the rim tapes and requested the supplier of bikes revert to less rigid outfits.

Another kaizen led by Pascal was done at a time when new batteries could no longer be purchased for the bikes electric assistance, as a result of a rare earths supply shortage from China. Insufficient autonomy of existing batteries had sometimes led postmen to finish the round with the sole energy of their muscles or to take two batteries with them on the round, just in case. Pascal took the time to learn what the best conditions were for batteries to be correctly and fully recharged at night and he redesigned the entire storage area (flat storage, not askew, cables not at risk of being unplugged in the process of retrieving a nearby battery, etc).

Storing batteries, a before and after


Laurent mentions the sudden breakage they had on a wheel fork: the wheel fork, not unlike the training wheels on either side of a kid’s bike, prevents the bike from falling over when riding at reduced speed or stopping to deliver the mail or a parcel. The fork is welded to the bike frame and the breakage suddenly occurred at the welding points, on both sides of the fork. Pascal spent some time studying the issue, compared different designs of forks and spotted the fault: the tube on which the fork is welded overlooks the wheel. Unless that tube is sealed, water will be sent up that tube, creating corrosion points from the inside right by the welding points, which will, at some point, break off under the weight of the mail.

Pascal has thus found many kaizen opportunities that led to an enhanced design of the bikes. It would be too long to enumerate here everything that Pascal or Laurent or Nathalie or Marine showed me, but one of Pascal’s latest findings is related to the parcel trunk at the back of the bike. Designed to contain small parcels (large ones are delivered by car), the trunk needs to be locked to prevent potential thefts while the postman is inside a building or a house. The lock opens up with a plastic key (on the left here-below), but those often break. Using the recently acquired grinder, Pascal prototyped a new key and is currently in discussion with the Technical Department to either have the supplier change the design or to make a set of metal spare keys that could be used if the original one breaks. Note that a trunk without a key is useless and that, in the absence of a spare key, the only alternative is to discard it.

The result of this insourced bike repair is so impressive that nearby centres are now trusting Pascal and his workshop with the repairs of their own bikes. Sure enough, Pascal’s workload has doubled in recent months. His dream, he concludes as we move along, is to spend his remaining years at La Poste developing workshops like his own and helping them to flourish.

Lean innovation at La Poste in France


I have mentioned earlier that the square meters that were saved up in the workshop allowed for more added-value activities, like dojos, to take place.

“I very much believe in learning and developing capabilities, and you have seen how successful this approach was in our bike repairs process,” Nathalie says. “The amount of things a postman has to remember to do every day is staggering. No wonder newcomers are overwhelmed by the difficulty of the job. So, when Marine told me she was working on a dojo dedicated to making a postman’s day a success, I knew I had to encourage her and support her initiative.”

We decide to go and visit the dojos, accompanied by Marine, Roubaix’s lean expert. She explains that she designed the dojo together with a small team of newly-hired postmen. They could have relied on an induction kit designed by Corporate, but they wanted to use their own words and pictures instead. “We started with a layout of our mail sorting area,” she explains, “and used it to cover all the different steps the daily processes entail. It took some iterations (and we still see improvements that could be made to it) but recent hires, upon testing the dojo, confirmed it would have saved considerable time and confusion in their early days.” The dojo is not designed to get into details, but to offer an overview of the day ahead and re-enforce the postmen’s mission, giving them a sense of purpose.

Dojos at La Poste to help mailmen in their daily workThe team also designed a pocket card to keep at hand with the most important points to remember.

I can see many other dojos around the room, but these are more specific: how to manage temporary or permanent redirection of mail (still a complex manual operation), how to handle situations such as “unknown at this address”, or how to sell La Poste service offers like “Take care of my parents” (where postmen, who go past each house every day as part of their round offer to check on elderly citizens and help them out). For this last product (for all the products they are asked to sell), rather than using the advertising flyers La Poste has designed, the teams preferred building their own standard: what does the service consist of? Who can be interested? Why? What advantages are there for the customer? What do I get if I sell one? What sentences can I use in offering this service?

And the technical dojos go through a similar standard: provide the what and the why, go through the key points, practice, use multiple choice questions or games to ascertain everything is correctly understood, check the trainee on the job.


Things aren’t easy at La Poste: there is a huge daily and seasonal variability in the workload, mail-sorting operations are still organized in batches, there are improvement opportunities for ergonomics at the sorting work stations, growth opportunities are scarce, and competition is heavy. Nonetheless, Nathalie sticks to her strong belief that, if you take care of your customers and your employees, the situation will improve, and she has repeatedly demonstrated that this is the case.

As we leave the center, she tells me about the major cultural change this new focus on customer represents for La Poste. “We have to learn all the basics, but I see a lot of people willing to do so. The other day, we had a bug in our system and we discovered after the rounds that 60 parcels had to be picked up from individual mail boxes that day (this is part of a new service where you can prepare your parcel, purchase the stamp online, and have La Poste come and pick it up from you own mail box). We missed them altogether. The teams were dumbfounded. I just told them to try and recover the blunder and at least warn the customers. They rolled up their sleeves, called each of the 60 customers to tell them about the problem, went back to the rounds, managed to collect some of the parcels that same day and the rest the day after. In the end, when we got the Net Promoter Score for that period, it turned out to be 100!”

Nathalie takes her safety shoes off and puts them in the back of her car. She’s all set for tomorrow’s gemba walk.


Catherine Chabiron photograph

Catherine Chabiron is a lean coach and member of Institut Lean France.

Retaining talent to make a difference

NOTES FROM THE GEMBA – This French company provides support to the severely disabled, and is currently using lean thinking to limit employee turnover and recruit faster.

Working in home care may be rewarding, in that it contributes to the well-being of sick or disabled people, but it is certainly stressful. This is what I quickly find out, as I walk around the small open-space office of Aloïs with the company’s CEO and founder Arnaud Barde. It is stressful because, first of all, you need to find customers, but also because you need to attract and retain employees for jobs that typically require empathy, professionalism and continuity of service.

Arnaud made the bold move towards home services a few years ago, when he left the restaurant business to start a company that would help severely disabled and elderly people in their own home, seven days a week and often 24 hours a day. The job entails human presence and assistance – for example in taking the patient for a stroll, to the movies, or listening to music, painting, or reading with them – as well as tasks like moving the patient from the bed to an armchair and to the toilet and back, cleaning, dressing, shopping, feeding, ironing and assisting nursing care.

Arnaud founded Aloïs at the end of 2014 (he named it after Aloïs Alzheimer) and launched a lean management strategy for the company in April 2016 after attending a Lean Summit in France. Four years after the founding, Aloïs employs 130 people (of which 80 FTEs) and takes care of 50 customers, most of whom require a minimum of five hours of home assistance each week.

As I walk through the doors on a recent visit, Arnaud greets me with a smile and, to break the ice, I cheerfully ask, “How is the business doing?” Arnaud‘s answer is a bit hesitant. I immediately assume his problem is with customers or sales, and ask him if that is indeed the case. “Oh no,” he says. “That is not our problem. We retain all our customers, and at the moment we have a growth rate of about 20%. Our turnover has grown eightfold since our first full year of operation.”

“What is your problem, then?” I ask, slightly surprised by what I had just heard.

“Our problem this year is that we have to can’t keep up with the requests for help we receive, because we can’t recruit fast enough.”

The hourly price of home care is set by the Departmental Council Healthcare Board (the payer), not by Aloïs. Needless to say, selling a service to disabled people, who have no income other than government support, at a premium is not an option. This constraint, combined with the fact that the job typically doesn’t require a high level of training and education, results in employees being paid rather low wages. At the same time, this is a demanding job. Add to the mix a recent upturn in employment offer in France and the traditionally high turnover of employees in home care services, and you will easily see why Aloïs is struggling: despite some improvement over time, employees leave regularly and recruitment remains difficult. This, in turn, puts a lot of pressure on remaining staff.

The story of these improvements and difficulties can be read on a very extensive system of visual management boards that the company deploys. Key indicators show customer satisfaction rates, the number of new patients joining, the number of those Aloïs no longer serves (most unfortunately due to their passing), continuity of service (the worst month this year in Aloïs was 99,6%), customer claims, employee turnover and recruitments, hours “sold”, and so on. And that’s before we even get to problem solving and task tracking sheets.

The company tracks customer KPIs

The company’s management team is small, and often out in the field supporting employees in their tasks or training them. However, they try to collaborate by participating in a weekly discussion on problems and a “daily checkpoint”, together with Arnaud.

It is great to see the strategic double challenge defined by Arnaud at the beginning of my visit underlying all the data displayed on the walls, which is centered around two main questions:

  • How do we attract and retain customers?
  • How do we attract and retain employees, so that they can better serve our customers?


Word of mouth plays a huge role in this business, and providing a good service and finding a clear differentiator can quickly attract new patients. Arnaud has a very clear idea of what sets Aloïs apart from the 220 or so competitors operating in the area: even though the company started with the idea of providing home care to seniors, it quickly veered towards severely disabled individuals needing high levels of care. According to Arnaud, this is a niche in which Aloïs can offer top-level service that other, more generalist competitors can’t provide. Aloïs also offers a nursing service for tracheotomized patients, for which 50 members of staff have been trained. (A capability rarely available to their competitors, certainly in such numbers.)

But there is more. Taking inspiration from the lean idea of going to see, Arnaud has begun to schedule two-hour gemba sessions with every single Aloïs patient in their own home once a quarter. Upon mentioning this, Arnaud pulls a bundle of one-sheet reports from his drawer to show me how these gemba visits happen. During each visit, the patient and her family are very thoroughly listened to, both when they share positive feedback and when they raise a problem, lodge a complaint or suggest an improvement.

“Sometimes, I am also allowed to observe operations like lifting the patient from the bed or dressing them, but people are often unwilling to share this kind of intimacy with someone they don’t know well, which is understandable. When this happens, however, it is the best opportunity I get to detect the pains and constraints we create for them,” he tells me. This, at least in my experience, is unheard of in the world of home care – and probably in most businesses.

This attention to detail is further pursued with employees taking turns in caring for patients, as work standards (how to move a patient, for example) are defined, discussed, improved and logged for each patient. The idea is to offer a perfect service, approved by the patient, but also to enable an efficient induction should a new caregiver step in. Some of the work standards we check on my visit state the “why”, but Arnaud tells me they all should. He is right. In my experience, the why on work standards is very important: when I coach problem solving, I see numerous cases where the problem is actually lost know-how. Complex tasks spelled out on a work standard will progressively be bypassed because nobody remembers why you need them, and this invariably results in increased failures and wastes. Some people in the company knew how to do it at some point, and why it was necessary, but as the job was handed over to others and no one worked on the design to eliminate those awkward tasks, the message was forgotten.

On the topic of hand-overs, Arnaud asked his teams to develop a very thorough training protocol for the onboarding of an employee to a new patient, where the group leader will supervise all the tasks and gestures required for that patient, before leaving the employee on her own. One of the scores provided by the patient is about how serene and trustful they feel with the Aloïs employee. Arnaud remembers a quarterly visit during which he saw the patient, a severely disabled man in his thirties, fall asleep with the caregiver’s hand resting on his head. “What’s more serene than that?” he remembers thinking.

Care is important for the well-being of patients, but so are the stimuli coming from social life. This is an important extra offered by Aloïs, which, beyond home activities, arranges a quarterly event for all patients and their caregivers, with activities ranging from theater to karaoke, a wine tour of Bordeaux to chocolate making.

Aloïs measures participation to social events

In mid-2017, Arnaud was advised to check whether this ambitious service approach would not severely impact his margin. But he sees things the other way around: his hunch is that he should work on the quality of service first and the rest will follow. He was right: at the end of the year, profitability was double the expected level. As mentioned before, this strategy of differentiation pays off, and growth is certainly not an issue for Aloïs!


At this point of my visit, Arnaud and I walk to another set of visual management boards, where we engage in a long conversation over the problem of attracting and retaining talent.

Recruitment has been a headache recently, for a variety of reasons. New hires are needed both to grow (it may take up to six caregivers taking turns to assist a patient day and night, not to mention backups) and to replace those who leave.

As we talk, I draft on a piece of paper the causal model of the hassle:

Causal model recruitment problems - part 1

But recruiting is not so easy: between the upturn in the French employment market and the fact that Aloïs is not well known yet, the company cannot rely on a database of potential candidates.

Causal model recruitment problems - part 2

In this scenario, you have two options (none of them ideal): either growth stops or Aloïs staff will find themselves struggling with continuity of service for 24/7 patients – not to mention stand-by services on others – with the risk of straining scarce resources and generating even more turnover or absenteeism.

Causal model recruitment problems - part 3

Arnaud confirms the three steps he has taken with his teams to try and address the issue: “We brainstormed how we could build a solid database of potential prospects for recruitment, in addition to the very strong partnership we have develop with the local unemployment agency [which includes a 10-week course, mostly taking place at the gemba]. And we defined a takt time to complete the tasks to build it. We now track our achievements against the takt time.” Seeing an office task work at takt time, with weekly discussions on what is late and why, is a rare opportunity that I gladly jump at.

Studying the efficient collection of CVs

“Secondly,” continues Arnaud, “we have tried to speed up our recruitment process. September saw a relief after two or three strained months.”

Lastly, and this is the most interesting part, Arnaud and his teams have attempted to address the root causes of the problem (employee turnover and absenteeism). Backache is a serious concern there and stems from the fact that patients are sometimes reluctant to use a complicated and rather humiliating piece of equipment for lifting patients. They are simply unaware of the strain this puts on the caregivers. Arnaud is contemplating an investment in ergoskeletons, similar to exoskeletons but lighter and great to transfer the strength of the legs into the upper body. Another issue that creates absenteeism is recurrent illnesses, such as gastroenteritis: the caregivers cannot come close to patients suffering from this condition, so it is important for Aloïs to find ways to avoid contagion.

Another key point is convincing caregivers to accept being on call. They find it stressful and poorly paid. More generally, as we discuss with Arnaud, the problem is that the 120 or so caregivers at Aloïs are only supervised by six group leaders – in other words, 20 persons for one group leader. Taking into account the quarterly visits to patients, the recruitment and induction of new caregivers, this leaves little time for kaizen, improving standards, daily checkpoints and occasional last-minute replacements. Arnaud is thinking of developing a team of experts to take over on-call requests and start using them with new patients (while new recruits would be assigned to existing patients, where the operating standards are well known and agreed on). Could those experts take over a role of team leaders, supporting teams on the gemba smaller than the current ones? The scheme would offer increased career opportunities for caregivers, thus making a job in home care more attractive.

As we end the tour, Arnaud and I discuss at length what is being done to develop the competence of caregivers. This is another way to address turnover: as caregivers are given more autonomy in carrying out their tasks, and the freedom to improve their standards, their interest for the job will increase. Arnaud gives me two examples: “We ask caregivers – and not group leaders – to define the monthly operating schedule of tasks together with the patient. Also, when we establish the planning for the upcoming month, we take into account their own constraints to adjust the timetable – be it a dentist appointment or two days off to attend a wedding. They feel their needs are taken into consideration now.”

Working in home care is stressful, because of the seriousness of the patients’ conditions, but it pursues a great mission, in that it represents an alternative to a hospital or a nursing home. When I ask Arnaud what made him decide to leave the restaurant business to work in this sector, he takes time to think and then says” “I wanted something with purpose. Something meaningful. It was important for me.”


Catherine Chabiron photograph

Catherine Chabiron is a lean coach and a member of Institut Lean France.

Using lean to gain a competitive advantage

NOTES FROM THE GEMBA – In the web marketing world, a competitive advantage is a matter of life and death for businesses. The author meets a firm that has been leveraging lean to gain one.

Jonathan Vidor started dabbling in digital marketing when he was in high school in the late 90s. He was designing websites at the time and reaching the highest possible number of visitors became a sort of competition among pals. As he tried to increase the number of hits, he learned plenty about the variables that can impact a site visibility and about playing around with keywords (this at a time when the web economy was still in its infancy).

The expertise he developed gave him another idea: through ads and carefully-selected keywords, he could make money by attracting potential clients looking for goods or services via search engines and re-directing them to commercial websites… in exchange for a commission. At 23, he made his first million. By 2004, he had created his digital marketing startup – JVWEB (more info here) – and led it to become a company with a yearly turnover of €10 million and employing 55 people (their average age is 31).

A dream come true.


Like many startups, JVWEB eventually had to scale up. As Jonathan puts in, “we had reached a stage where we could no longer sign up new customers because our teams couldn’t recruit and deliver as fast as sales.” This slowly led Jonathan to turn to lean thinking.

As I reach JVWEB in Montpellier, in the south of France, I wonder how lean can apply to a company selling web marketing services to web platforms: can you imagine anything more intangible than SEO (Search Engine Optimization) services or advice on Google Adwords? I couldn’t! It will actually take quite a few questions, once on site, for me to grasp what JVWEB’s products are. After all, they were mostly invented after I started to work, at a time when the main tools I used where pencils, erasers and, on rare occasions, the only computer on the floor.

What is interesting about JVWEB’s line of business is that the value provided to the customer can often be tracked and measured, as data on the amount of traffic reaching a website before and after an optimization can be accessed easily. In a nutshell, JVWEB’s job is to provide advice to customers on how to become more visible on the Internet, thanks to an intimate understanding of the ever-changing workings of search engines. (The same is true for social networks, although tracking value there is definitely harder).

Though often ignored or underestimated, the capability to recruit, develop and retain talent and knowledge is a key success factor in most businesses, be they industrial or digital. In a fast-changing world in which once-unknown competitors can take over your market share in a heartbeat, it has become a matter of life or death.

This very scenario recently presented itself to JVWEB, which led Sébastien, who is in charge of sales, to dig deeper into his own trade. As Jonathan and I step into the room, Sébastien shows us how he tracks his leads’ conversion rate (face the bad news, if any, as early as possible) and how he checks each step of the conversion process on a big board, measuring the time it takes and highlighting errors or issues.

Interestingly, to understand why JVWEB had lost an offer they thought they had in the pocket, Sébastien managed to get in-depth feedback that helped him unearth the reasons behind the failure. He also got hold of a competitor’s offer, which he then broke down and analyzed in detail. “We have to learn fast what we can improve: are we clear enough? Are we solving the prospect client’s issues and taking care of her expectations? Do we really understand what those expectations are?”

Competitors are not the only threat JVWEB has to worry about: the customer can also decide to hire or develop internal resources to do just what they do (from SEO to recommendations on ads). This means JVWEB teams are often on the edge of their seats, having to define what key competencies they need to develop further and which knowledge gaps they need to address.


Aymerik, who manages two-thirds of JVWEB deliveries with his teams, has dwelled on this problem for a while. “It would take us nine months to fully train new hires,” Aymerik says. “We sort of assumed that they would learn on the job. And when they were eventually trained, we did not pay enough attention to what they still needed to master.” As a result, training has become a key activity for team leaders at JVWEB. Dojo topics have also been defined, from pure technical mastery to how to prepare and manage a call with your customer. The process of onboarding new hires now takes two months. The recruitment process itself has been successfully “kaizened” by Tiffany, the person in charge of HR, both to reduce lead-time and to clarify how to recognize talent and ad-hoc profiles.

Together with Jonathan and two other members of the management team, Aymerik visited Tier-1 and Tier-2 Toyota suppliers in Japan last year. There, the team was struck by the constant attention to details TPS old-timers showed. The trip made them change their minds about the size of their teams and the role of the team leaders. “After we got back from Japan, we went from large 15-people teams to cells of five account managers and one team leader. Half of the team leader’s time is now assigned to dojos, knowledge development of the team, problem solving and support,” confirms Aymerik. The rather invisible work done at JVWEB has now been made more visible, as I can see it in C1 (the first cell). Lucas is the Team Leader there. Visual management boards highlight the rate of customer satisfaction of the week (NPS – Net Promoter Score), but also ongoing kaizen activities and recent dojo learning points.

“The NPS question is a bit too generic”, Valentine, the C2 team leader, comments. “We now prefer a direct exchange with the customer on the activities of the week to try and highlight what could be improved.” The team can now discuss topics, such as the results of the optimizations made the week before, but also the best timing to send over recommendations, since the customer’s web developers’ availability is a prerequisite for triggering a real Just-In-Time process and avoiding a pile-up of unheeded work.

Another addition to JVWEB’s way of working that resulted from lean thinking and the trip to Japan is that all cells now try to implement a detailed production plan and learn from what could not be produced as planned. As we pore over the details of a typical week’s activity to support a customer, it is obvious to me that the teams have taken lean very seriously and that they are trying to create a regular flow, pulled by the daily tasks required by their customers, (where those tasks play the role of Kanban cards). They have not always succeeded at reducing the work content of such tasks below one hour, which means that they may not yet be capable of digging into the details of each piece of work to significantly reduce variability. They have, however, made great progress along the way… and picked up a few quick wins. The SEO team has even designed small daily production cards on which each account manager can write the production plan for the day, and in the adjoining column, the actual production. At the end of the day, they all discuss what they learned from any gap between planned and actual delivery, and what they can do to improve their understanding of the actual work content or the reduction of useless tasks.

Internal kaizen, however, has its limits if you don’t understand what constraints or issues your products or services create for the customer. Jonathan is preparing the next step and wants to organize gemba walks on customer premises, so that the JVWEB teams can observe busy customers running around from meeting to conference calls, with little time to read optimization reports unless they are concise and to the point.


In what is now a very competitive environment, Jonathan and his team have thought hard about how to regain an “unfair advantage” over their competitors, as Eric Ries labels it in The Lean Startup. To this end, the delivery cells are doing kaizen on day-to-day tasks, focusing on what could not be produced on time or right first time, or what does not match the customer’s expectations. It was a great start, but it might be coming a little late for those kaizen tackling social networks. The team in charge is working hard to catch up.

This is why an R&D team led by Guillaume is assisting the team, taking over whenever tools or reports need to be improved in the delivery. To clarify what they have to do and ensure they do not miss any customer requirement, the team has been working with on a Heijunka Board, levelling up the improvements they have to make for each of the delivery cells over the course of the week.

The board titled “To-do list” is fed by internal-user requests (to clarify the need, the user is systematically challenged with the question: “What is the problem you are trying to solve?”), but also by improvement ideas or kaizen results from the delivery cells or top management. Learning from delivery kaizens and user requests is the very first step towards innovation, because it is a difficult learning process over what works and what does not, what helps customers and what represents a hindrance. The R&D team meets once a month to share the knowledge they have captured this way.

Jonathan and JVWEB know that they need real innovation, not only improvement of what they already offer, to get a competitive advantage, and the R&D team also works on new solutions (one of them being a tool that provides customers with an immediate and automated mapping of the weak points of their advertising campaign on the web).

I start an interesting discussion on the finished products JVWEB sells with Jonathan and his management team. How can they make them visible, palpable like any physical product, so that the teams can step into the customers’ shoes and discuss perceived quality, ergonomics or user-friendliness? How can you discuss kaizen and innovation on products that you can’t see in the collaborative space? Guillaume and his team have stumbled upon this issue and started in a dedicated room a competitive product tear-down (screen copies on the wall), to try and discuss angles and competitive advantages over their own solution. But they have not yet come to the point where their own product hangs on the wall for everyone to see, so that its relevance, reliability and ergonomics can be openly discussed.


In today’s challenging business environment, a company needs efficient and autonomous problem solvers. At the same time, top management needs to move closer to the gemba and help their teams find and face the problems they need to work on. What do the teams need to learn? Where are the knowledge gaps? What are the “critical-to-customer” expectations? Where do they stand there versus the competition? Interestingly, JVWEB has started to work on this very issue in their management Obeya, with a spider chart comparing customer expectations and where they stand at this stage. They have also started to define some challenges and paired the ongoing kaizens with each of them. All teams meet once a month to discuss and confirm those kaizens and define which ones need specific attention.

What we see in Japan from the TPS experts is the obvious part of lean management. Behind visible displays of tools and concepts, the PDCA cycles serve long-term, strategic goals. The find and face phase (as described in The Lean Strategy) has only just started for Jonathan and his teams. What is learned on the gemba and from kaizens will need to be brought up to the management Obeya, and, in turn, Obeya challenges will have to frame the efforts of the teams, so as to build, together with the front line, the solutions that will enable sustainable growth.


Catherine Chabiron photograph

 Catherine Chabiron is a lean coach and member of the Institut Lean France. She previously held the role of Director of IS Governance at Faurecia, a large French industrial group, working for eight years at the heart of the IS department’s lean transformation.

An interview with lean thinking pioneer Freddy Ballé

INTERVIEW – Having started to explore TPS in the mid-1970s, Freddy Ballé is one of the great pioneers of our movement. Here, he shares what he learned about Toyota over the past 40 years.

Interviewee: Freddy Ballé, lean pioneer and author

Interviewer: Catherine Chabiron, lean coach and member of Institut Lean France

Catherine Chabiron: Freddy, you are known worldwide as the co-author of the Gold Mine trilogy, but you are also a lean pioneer in France, having influenced at least two generations of French lean thinkers. Over the past 40 years, you have had developed an impressive track record of lean transformations. What caught your attention and convinced you to start this life-long investigation? 

Freddy Ballé: The starting point was my assignment in Mexico in the early 1970s as Deputy Manager for Renault Mexicana. What struck me back then was the fact that, when faced with quality issues on a car (and we were), the hours we spent on rework exceeded the time we spent on the final assembly. I could sense something was wrong, but could not pinpoint what was at fault in the process. Let’s say this alerted me to Renault quality and made me curious about the existence of other systems.

CC: Where was your first encounter with Toyota and TPS?

FB: You will be surprised to know it was in Africa! In the mid 1970s, one of my colleagues from Renault warned me that an obscure Japanese competitor was dumping prices there and asked for my help to prove this was the case. However, our investigation demonstrated the opposite: not only was Toyota (it was them, indeed) selling cars at lower prices than ours, but they were also making a profit.

At that time, provided a product launch was not underway, we could easily visit a competitor’s plant. When we went to see Toyota’s, we were confronted with a puzzling situation. It was quite obvious that they were far more productive than we were, with one production line delivering 600 cars per day with half the staff we had for the same output and the same type of operation.

Yet, as we walked down the production line, we couldn’t figure out what was different. For example, we would follow a stamping line of door panels through a shopstock, from which the stamped panels were taken to the next step. In Renault, the next step would have been to move allthe door panels to a central warehouse, so it was natural for us to assume that Toyota did it the same way. What we didn’t see during our visit was that door panels were sent directly to the next production step – welding. There was no central warehouse where semi-finished products would wait for days or even weeks.

CC: When did you sense there was something big in there?

FB: Assessing a competitor with your own system in mind is extremely difficult: we simply did not understand what they were doing when looking at their operations with our own set of binoculars. They simply did not focus on the same things. They were obsessed with their work-in-process, stock level and the flexibility necessary to reduce it. They told us, for example, that on the large presses, their SMED was half an hour when ours was five hours minimum. They even gave us a demonstration.

In the same way, at Renault we were measuring output from our lines by the number of cars produced compared to the capacity we had on the line. Toyota was measuring the time the line stopped for quality reasons against the theoretical production time, which gave them a permanent measure of quality.

I was puzzled, but progressively started to get to the idea behind this different way of working: Toyota was targeting flexible production lines to easily switch from one variant to another. They were also learning to work with small batches to reduce the lead-time for customers and enforcing quality checks at each station. (Whenever a defect was detected, the team leader was summoned for help. In case of failure to fix the problem, the line would be stopped!) Things at Renault were different: defects were listed on a piece of paper, but the car would proceed along the line and only at the end would it be taken to a large repair station. There, defects were corrected (provided they had been correctly reported, collected and understood to begin with).

Toyota was also very focused on what we now call “motion kaizen”: to reduce the number of steps and gestures the operator had to perform at his station (any useless motion is a waste). The larger the containers of components along the line, the longer the assembly workstations – and higher the number of steps the operator has to perform. Toyota’s sharp outlook on useless movements led to a switch to small containers.

I have a story about this. Years later, at the time when I had moved to Valeo as Industrial VP, Toyota was eager to penetrate the European market and had therefore developed close relationships with a number of automotive equipment manufacturers in Europe. We received a visit from “the” Toyota TPS expert and I asked the Branch Manager of the plant we visited to participate. Already engaged with a customer, he was extremely reluctant but I insisted he come along to the gemba. Without saying a word, our TPS master walked along the line observing the operators. He then took a small box of clips (used to assemble the car headlights) and moved it by a few centimeters. He then stepped back and observed the operator’s motions again. He moved it a second time, closer to the operator, and eventually appeared satisfied. My Branch Manager took me aside and gave me hell: “You had me postpone an important meeting for a mute old man, whose sole contribution to our production efficiency is to move clip boxes by a few inches!”

CC: Would you say that this paradigm difference in production also stemmed from Toyota’s history? The company had very difficult beginnings, in a small country where mountains often limit the space available for large industrial sites, and with a small domestic market.

FB: Yes, it certainly does. Furthermore, Toyota experienced major quality issues on their very early models and, just as they were ramping up, the Second World War broke. After the conflict, they suffered heavy financial losses and strikes. All of this led them to re-think their approach: “How can we get everyone to worry about quality and work on it all the time?”. This is how they came up with concepts inspired by Edwards Deming like production cells, quality circles and andon.

At Renault, the production line was solely looked at in terms of output. Quality only appeared as a final step. In fact, quality essentially meant managing rework based on a list of problems in upstream processes. In Toyota’s vision, the same production line was conceived as a string of production cells. With five to seven operators, each cell checks its own quality with the clear understanding that operators should stop the entire line if they failed to fix a defect. This way, the defect can’t move to the next workstation.

As time passed, I have seen many versions of a modernized Renault approach: defects are reported in an IT system instead of paper. However, unless they are killed there and then, defects are likely to be overseen and delivered to the customer. From design to assembly, kaizen is key.

CC: What did you learn from Toyota about product design?

FB: The first thing I learned was to pay attention to the customer and how he or she was using our products. You will have heard, like I did, plenty of stories on how Toyota’s Japanese engineers learned from their customers. Getting ready to design the Lexus, they went over to study at close hand representative premium services in the US. Similarly, for six months Honda studied hundreds of families taking kids to school and collecting them, before proposing a new van with rear sliding doors. They had a hard time convincing their Management Board, who feared the van would be identified as a truck instead of a family car. It turned out to be one of their greatest successes.

While I was at Renault, I was involved in the company’s efforts to enter the German market: we improved our designs after spending time watching people getting in or out of cars. This helped us to gain market share there. But I also learned the hard way that things can go the other way. After moving from Valeo to Faurecia, I remember presenting a prototype for our new dashboard to Audi, whose answer was clear: “This is a dashboard for Renault, not for Audi.”

Toyota relies on the role of the Chief Engineer. The CE has customer preferences and constraints in mind at all times. He helps define the product concept and fights for it, while taking into account advice and suggestions from functional experts. We are very far from the classical project manager, whose role tends to be limited to checks on deliverables and reporting on budget and milestones. The first thing the Chief Engineer does – aided by a small team – is to go to the plant producing the current model, discuss with the operators and learn from them about current quality or assembly problems, and work with them on reducing or eliminating them in the new model.

Toyota has also promoted a set-based approach in development. Our R&D departments are still reluctant to study parallel options, which they consider too costly. So, they end up selecting one solution to then discover too late it doesn’t work. This is where the real cost is, because you have to start all over again or launch something with a bug or not at the level expected. With their first Prius electro-magnetic system, for example, Toyota started with 80 potential solutions, tested them, came to an agreement on 40 and then, through further tests, halved those until it could choose one option. One more argument goes in favor of set-based concurrent engineering: the quality of the design typically relies heavily on the designer’s expertise, which this approach enriches through continuous and efficient problem solving.

CC: I heard you say that quality is the starting point of any industrial process and that kaizen is the key to it. Can you share more thoughts on kaizen, please?

FB: As I mentioned before, the key to understanding Toyota’s success is their 5 to 7-strong cells and their team leaders. At Renault, we were checking the actual output against the production plan at the end of the day. Toyota made me realize that a permanent check throughout the day is far more efficient. The part boards objective is by the hour, as is your opportunity to ask why an objective has not been achieved, if necessary. This enables management to see things that could not otherwise be seen, react faster to them, investigate wherever necessary, and collect fresh data. Doing this at the end of the day is too late, because you will have already forgotten what happened in the morning.

At Valeo, we implemented this type of cell, encouraging operators to think about their own tasks and work environment. With limited investment, operators progressively defined very efficient team standards, started to track their safety, follow the takt time on part boards and comment on any gap. When spotted, they displayed the problems and how to solve them. As Valeo grew both organically and through acquisitions, the team cells and their efficient standards made onboarding of small structures much easier.

None of this can work, however, without management at the gemba, checking on quality or gaps versus takt time, supporting initiatives, and asking questions. When management helps solve the problems exposed by the front line, operators gradually become more involved and positive. They also learn to work as a team: they will identify problems together, act together and feel responsible for product quality and takt time.

CC: The team leader is a key role in the organization of the cell. How do you identify those team leaders?

FB: The team leader is a coordinator, not a boss. Expertise on the product and technology is key. A team leader needs his peers to acknowledge this expertise. And yet you might still find you have not made the best choice. Experience taught me that the 5S exercise reveals the best team leaders: during it, those operators who show more ability to see problems and suggest options are not necessarily the person initially earmarked for the job. The right person is often the quiet and reserved one. That you don’t usually hear from.

CC: What about kanbans?

FB: Kanbans give you the takt time, they are the pace maker operators work to.

Kanbans also have unexpected consequences on the assembly line. When visiting Toyota I was particularly struck by their assembly lines. I once asked if they balanced out the workstations on the line taking into account the work content of the operators as we did at Renault. The answer I got was: “Yes, we not only take into account the work content, but also the kanbans”.

It took me some time to understand that this answer was about the components feeding the line. Large batches of similar cars, for example, with the same components (such as air conditioning) could not have worked with kanbans. In Toyota, the lines were replenished using small trains and kanban signals. They used small containers fed by flow racks and regulated by kanbans. This led them to further work on the SMED and redefine the production batch sizes. The kanbans and the replenishment rate directly contributed to the flexibility of the line.

When we started discussing kanbans at Renault, an engineer (who was completely missing the point) suggested to enter the Digital Age and design IT kanbans from the start. I am totally in favor of using computers when they are truly needed and for the added value they bring, but their role should be contained. Cardboard kanbans are strong visual tools that tell you whether you have a problem or not as you walk by. With an IT system, anomalies in the data are only seen by people somewhere in an office, when and if they take the time to check.

CC: How do you explain Toyota’s ability to retain its leading position both in operational efficiency and innovation over time?

FB: In Toyota, kaizen culture explains it all. Worrying about quality and takt time all the time, everywhere, has ingrained the idea that everything can be improved. We all know the story about Ohno’s circle: he would draw a circle on the factory floor using a piece of chalk and keep managers standing there, inside the circle, until they could think of five ideas for improvement.

In the same way, in product development, when you are faced with a difficult problem and someone comes to you and tells you he or she has found a solution, try answering like our engineers were answered while being trained by Toyota: “Not good enough, I want you to come up with three solutions and tell me how to select the best one.” This here is one of Toyota’s strengths.

CC: What would be your advice to CEOs, out of your 40 years of lean experience?

FB: First of all, lean management is built on sand if the vision behind the tools and routines is not properly understood. This is particularly true with Industy 4.0 or Digital factory, amongst the latest fashionable trends in industry. Digital parts boards do not have space for hourly comments on gaps. I am sure the defects recorded online will feed into magnificent Paretos, but the really important thing is actually to prevent passing the defect over to the next workstation, display which problem the cell is working on, and check on the learning progress.

My second point will not come as a surprise considering my experience at Valeo. I would say that implementing kaizen and pulled flows required extreme determination from both the CEO and myself. For most people, small batches and a set-based approach are counter-intuitive. To establish them, you will have to fight preconceptions, which requires will and  the ability to explain why. You also need to dig in the details with your teams, give them a broader view whenever they are stuck, and find new angles with them. I call it the “the helicopter” method: to see where a box of headlight clips should be positioned and, when needed, to step back and be able to check if the flow of the whole line is efficient.

CEOs and managers not only go to the gemba to see things and enforce solutions, but also to learn how to adopt a Socratic line of questioning – not so easy when one has been educated and trained to respond to problems with immediate solutions and tactics.

CC: Socratic questioning?

FB: Learning your way in offices and on the shopfloor, you start seeing problems, waste or unattended issues. Refrain from saying (or even thinking): “That’s stupid, let’s do something about it immediately!” If you want people – whoever they are – to grow, you must encourage them to notice when there is a problem, weigh out options, try out solutions, and learn by doing. Ask questions such as: “Why do it that way?” or “Why is this part lying there?”. With their answers to your questions, help them identify the problem. Add new questions leading them to formulate even more questions, such as “Is there another way to do this?”.

Problem solving is the art of questioning. Whether you start an A3 or any other form of problem solving, the key point is the agreement reached by the team on the question: “What problem are we trying to solve?” Think also of the 5 Why’s: the answer to each should be facts – checked through tests or investigations on the gemba – and not opinions, or even assumptions made by brainstorming in an office.

I have recently started to study Japanese again, and I have discovered by pure chance that shitsu means quality and shitsumon means question. Interesting, isn’t it?


Freddy Ballé photograph

Freddy Ballé started visiting Toyota plants in Japan in the mid-1970s while head of product planning and later manufacturing engineering at Renault, where he worked for 30 years. Upon leaving Renault, he pioneered the full lean system implementation at Valeo as Technical Vice President, then at Sommer-Allibert as CEO, and later at Faurecia as Technical VP. He is co-author with his son Michael of The Gold Mine trilogy.


Catherine Chabiron photograph

 Catherine Chabiron is a lean coach and member of the Institut Lean France. She previously held the role of Director of IS Governance at Faurecia, a large French industrial group, working for eight years at the heart of the IS department’s lean transformation.


How this SME made lean its strategy for sustainable growth

NOTES FROM THE GEMBA – The author visits an SME specializing in the instalment of electrical equipment. Its CEO has learned that integrating lean in their strategy can lead to sustainable growth.

Words: Catherine Chabiron, lean coach and member of Institut Lean France

As I pay a visit to Grégory Verdon, CEO of Soditel, I decide to try and test, with his help, the concept of the “4 Fs”.

Described in the recently published book The Lean Strategy, the 4 Fs (Find, Face, Frame and Form, as opposed to traditional management’s Define, Decide, Drive and Deal) outline a set of radically different management behaviors that every lean leader should embrace. The idea is for a leader to: apprehend the environment around them by going to the gemba (Find); accept that they might have been wrong on the market, customer expectations, competitors or problems with delivery (Face); support their teams in solving the now-visible problems with flow and quality through a number of lean techniques and tools (Frame); so that everyone can progressively contribute to the construction of a strategy through better, different products and services that help society and respect the environment (Form).

Grégory picks up the concept very quickly and confirms he started as the classic 4D type. He had little experience when he started and simply mimicked the behaviors he saw in other (traditional) managers: he was stern and demanding, never questioned his decisions, and was quick to blame people when something went wrong. More importantly, he would provide solutions to his team, stifling their initiative.

He tells me the story of their CRM, with humour and a good deal of introspection. Back in 2010, he had discovered that a large number of invoices hadn’t been issued and sent to a large customer. True to his 4D approach of the time, he: defined that this was not acceptable and that a rigourous invoicing process with validations and checks was necessary; decided, in 2013, to purchase a CRM software that would support this invoice validation workflow; and drove the implementation. Soditel then entered the deal phase: Grégory’s teams had lost the global vision and only focused on their silos within the CRM, some were overbooked with operational needs and became recurrent bottlenecks in the validation flow, and most started reverting to Excel. Although the CRM was still not completely paid for, Grégory decided to discontinue it after just one year.

“This is when I started my find and face phases. I began to discuss with fellow CEOs and questioned my approach: did it help that I snapped and yelled when something went wrong? Was there a better way?” he recalls.

Soditel initially specialized in the installation of low-voltage equipment – from phones and TV aerials to intercom systems and access badges – in homes, hotels and office buildings. Growing increasingly frustrated with their dependence on other trades, which often prevented them from completing their work, they decided to add high-voltage installations (cabling, plugs, lighting) to their offering in 2013.

“We had an exceptional year in 2011, with the arrival of Digital Terrestrial Television, but otherwise our turnover was always rather stable at just under €3 million,” says Grégory. Soditel is a small business, but collectively, small businesses represent the number one employer in France! Today, the company works on new buildings (low- and high-voltage), low-voltage refurbishments, and aftersales services and maintenance. They don’t design the energy-saving or home-automation solutions they install – they see themselves as an integrator of existing products.

“As we moved into high-voltage installations, I realized I needed guidance on how to manage my business. That’s when I discovered lean thinking. It’s going well, if you consider that our turnover last year was twice as big as that of 2013, and we have learned plenty along the way.”

At this point, I ask Grégory how he integrates lean in his daily life and his strategy, and how he managed his “find and face”.


Grégory takes me to the Sales Administration room, where aftersales customer requests are received. Most customers here are building management agents, acting on behalf of co-owners. Typically, Mr or Mrs Smith will claim they have an issue with the building’s intercom system, and the agent will contact Soditel asking them to go and have a look and requesting a quote. Upon embracing lean thinking, operators began to sit and think with Grégory: a problem that occurred often was that operators always received numerous phone calls or mails from agents enquiring about when a job would that place, even though that job had already been scheduled, if not completed. (The agent is not on site and relies on the information she is given.)

Creating a single mailbox for all incoming requests and deciding that all interventions (or, at least, diagnosis visits) should be scheduled and confirmed on the same day created a major shift: agents in the area had never seen such reactivity, with the number of visits scheduled and confirmed within one day from the request growing from 75% to 95% in 2017. Right now, Soditel is aiming at 2 to 4 hours maximum, depending on the type of assistance.

Most customer complaints in aftersales are related to the poor quality of the solution, but also to the lack of information (remember last time you called for support and were left hanging for days without any hint that someone was working on your case). Taking the hot potato off the agent’s hands within just a few hours is a major relief for them. It also considerably reduced the workload for sales administration operators, as the number of queries and claims decreased.

This “find and face” approach led to more discoveries. For example, Soditel offers contracts of preventive maintenance, and it became clear that all the associated docs left with the customers were highly technical reports that people found hard to read. Possible improvements were not followed up on, either. So, Grégory asked a team leader to look into the problem and find a way to improve things with the team, trying to understand what a “good” preventive visit looks like, building up a standard for visits, and devising more user-friendly reports like the one showed below (a before and after).

After visiting the Sales department, Grégory and I go back to ground level, where logistics are located. Laurent, who is in charge of Logistics and Supplies, seems to have completely grasped the idea of “find and face”. Our of his own initiative, he started discussions with technicians on the road, to understand their jobs and hopefully find ways to make them easier. Most people managing on-the-road technicians are content when they come back and confirm the job is done, whereas Laurent wants them to talk and open up. And open up they did, sharing priceless anecdotes that helped to highlight problems:  “When I started to work, I realized that some parts were missing from the box and had to go back to pick them up” or “We sold three power breakers to the customer as part of the sale bundle, but they only needed two”. All of these conversations got Laurent and Grégory to start thinking about how the work could be improved.

In Soditel, all forms of rework – from re-schedule to re-install and re-turn – are referred to as “RE” and when Grégory asked the team to map it the number of things that popped up was staggering. Next door, we start a discussion with a building site works manager (installing equipment in new buildings), whose team has started to log the “RE”. One of the results was that they launched a checklist on site to highlight what is sold versus what actually needs to be done – a safety check to prevent rework from occurring, as most sales on new sites happen via bid and specs on paper, rather than on technical visits.

This new approach – encouraging everyone to acknowledge the not-right-first-time – paved the way for the “Frame” stage.


Once a repair is booked and scheduled, a kit with the requested parts, cabling and necessary tools, is put together in the warehouse. Initially, the kits were placed on a trolley assigned to one technician covering all the jobs scheduled for the day. Determined to understand the reasons behind the “RE” – in this case, the technician not having the right parts for the job – through discussions and observations Laurent unearthed two main causes: first of all, as the days passed and the Sales team refined the schedule, jobs would often be re-assigned to other technicians, but the information wouldn’t reach Logistics and the necessary parts or materials wouldn’t be moved to the trolley of the new technician in charge of the job. In addition, technicians would often forget to pick oversized parts and equipment.

Laurent developed a new solution. As the work is planned, he now opens a kitting box for each job to start on the preparation, thus levelling the effort and visualizing the missing parts as early as possible. If stock is at hand, a green thumb confirms the status (the “eyes” mean that oversized equipment is to be picked up from a dedicated trolley by the technician before he departs). A red thumb signals that the kit is not ready. Kitting boxes are assigned to technicians at the last minute, based on the latest dispatch.

This typical lean approach of kitting a job in the planned sequence is a great example of the Frame stage described by the authors of The Lean Strategy. This is when exposed problems are tackled with the appropriate lean techniques, provided the intent behind each lean tool is well understood.

With the kitting boxes, the intent is to reduce the instances in which there are missing parts and wrong kits by checking ahead of time and assigning kits to technicians on a just-in-time basis, but there is a need to refine the solution further. For example, how will management and operators understand at first glance which kit is in a normal or abnormal condition in terms of delay (a “red thumb” is not critical three days before a job is planned, but it flags a major problem the day before or the day of the job)? Also, how will the whole team learn from the system and improve together?

Despite these open questions, the results of the new approach to creating kits are already very good. The number of checks and questions when organizing for the day’s work has decreased by 3 and internal complaints have disappeared overnight.

I continue to discuss other “framing” topics with Laurent and Grégory. For example, working on pulled flows to stock the high runners (intent: work at takt time, reduce stocks, order only when needed) or “pulling the andon cord” whenever a missing part or a lengthy installation requires an alert (intent: provide an immediate and strong support to fix the problem and make it right first time).

As we go back to the Sales Department, we see another great illustration of framing with lean. As mentioned earlier, Soditel developed a unique market savoir-faire in terms of providing feedback to building agents. But they are also extremely efficient at building-up standard offers when bidded. The result is that they receive masses of requests, but that their order intake remains low. In other words, Soditel is used as a useful reference in bids but doesn’t always retain potential customers. The Sales Manager, also named Laurent, confirms this situation but is torn between the time spent on answers (to avoid disappointing customers) and the need to launch continuous improvement on order-taking. It looks like further framing is needed here.

When we walk out of the office, I discuss with Grégory: do they have to put on the wall each and every ongoing bid or only those on which a decision is expected in the coming weeks to focus the busy teams on those bids only? In other words, how do they implement kanban to highlight the upcoming deadlines? Another frame that could be useful is to define whether Soditel wants to answer all bids, at the risk of a poor intake rate, or answer less bids in a standard manner and focus on the added value that they can bring to a limited number of targeted businesses.


Grégory is well aware of the fact that, until now, his gemba walks have been mainly focused on support functions. Sure, their work on past-due invoices brought in a big stack of cash. True, trouble-shooting in Sales has helped to identify wrong parameters on a DNS server that prevented messages or offers from being sent to the customers. It’s also true that organizing gemba walks with technicians on the road is complicated, but it is clearly necessary to understand what happens on sites, what problems customers are facing, and which solutions are hard to install or maintain (remember what Jean Baptiste Bouthillon does on his building sites? Check out this Planet Lean article).

Nevertheless, the find and face with technicians or customers started to bring ideas that could make a real difference for the business. For example, most of Soditel’s competitors sell the installation, but few follow up afterwards. Imagine you move into an apartment where home automation was installed by the previous owner: you will certainly struggle to install your own phone with the home automation apps and the lodgings parameters, at a time when you have a million things to do as you try to settle in your new home. This is where Soditel steps in and offers their help to do the set-up and train the new tenant/owner – something few competitors do.

The work on the “RE” will also bring in new opportunities to improve the quality of the delivery, while relieving Soditel’s employees from the mental burden of having to address rework, unclear instructions and customer complaints.

Little by little, as true conditions are revealed and continuous improvement takes place, opportunities for a new strategy for Soditel are being unveiled: what are they good at? What are their competitors doing? Where could they develop a competitive advantage? What do they need to learn further? I believe that lean and the 4Fs will help Grégory to refine Soditel’s strategy going forward, allowing it to continue to deliver sustainable growth (and maybe double the turnover again over the next four years). All in all, Grégory’s management style has undergone a great change, from 4D to 4F, a result of his daily commitment to finding and facing.


Catherine Chabiron photograph

 Catherine Chabiron is a lean coach and member of the Institut Lean France. She previously held the role of Director of IS Governance at Faurecia, a large French industrial group, working for eight years at the heart of the IS department’s lean transformation.