I have been working with Lean transformations for over a decade. I love Lean: it is accessible, yields results fast and is fun and energizing. It rests on the shoulders of the Toyota Production Systems giants, who taught us to ask “Why?” five times.
I first heard about Lean when I met a team of Lean leaders at one of the world’s leading companies. The ways of working I discovered there pretty much set the benchmark for the rest of my career.
The Lean Six Sigma team at the company was international and diverse. Its members sat together in an open space overlooking the main hall inside the EMEA headquarters. There was a former competitive athlete, who improved processes in operations; next to her was a quick-thinking engineer who ran projects in sales and who today runs a business.
Nearby, there was the Lean leader who during one of her projects had rearranged the loading of 160 boxes onto a delivery truck – a move that helped optimize unloading and, consequently, machine installation time. To the left was a team member who drove projects in finance; he had a calm demeanor and contagious smile and knew how to challenge people in a way that made everyone, including his managers, listen.
In the back sat two Service Lean leaders: always on the move, they worked closely with field engineers in the fast-paced framework of emergencies and first-time-fix rates.
It was not by accident that people gathered in that space were keen learners. Eager to uncover root causes, they ran kaizen events late into the night, seeking out new solutions, challenging one another, sharing.
The team was coached by a Master Lean leader, whom I’ll call John. John was equally focused on delivering results for the company as on personal transformation of Lean leaders. Chief administrator of the learning that people needed to progress in their work and their lives, he guided Lean leaders with elegance and a thorough understanding of human nature. As a painter once put it, “Art is not what you see but what you make others see”. John had the ability to open eyes and ears and take people on a journey.
And he achieved that in the following ways:
John had an inimitable facilitation style, which he combined with a vivid interest in how memory works and how adults learn. During his workshops, he often invited participants to present case studies and did not hesitate to make gentle puns along the way, as he knew attendees personally.
One event I remember particularly was the monthly “failure session” during which John encouraged Lean leaders to do a post-mortem analysis of a project that failed, seeking to discover what everyone could learn from it. The failure sessions allowed people to reflect on their experience and ask themselves, “What would I do differently if I had the opportunity?”
Through his workshops, John built a community of practitioners in the business who spoke a common language and who adopted attitudes and behaviors which would help them solve bigger challenges later in their careers.
People in the company literally queued to talk to John. If he was present in the open space, there was always someone sitting next to him, talking, listening. The body language of John and his visitor said it all: hunched forward at the table, sitting closely, talking quietly and earnestly; it was clear that this was not a conversation that would soon be forgotten.
I can think of at least three reasons for the unwavering popularity of John among his colleagues: availability, quality of welcome, and reputation.
John deliberately made time to see people - this was a big a part of what he thought his role as a Master Lean leader entailed. He greeted those who came with a big smile, sometimes a pat on the back, always happy to see them. With a thousand things on his agenda every day, to John nothing was more important than the conversation that he was about to have. And for a reason: John was known to help people transform themselves.
After a week of workshops, participants usually went out for a meal together. The restaurant owners treated John like family, and John treated everyone in the group with warmth and respect. John was no different whether we celebrated at a restaurant or worked in the office. He had the same kindness and authenticity about him; only the occasion was different.
Moreover, everyone who gathered around the table in that restaurant knew that what was being celebrated was not the end of a workshop, but rather the opportunities unveiled by the new learning.
John’s teaching was similarly deep on change management, Lean and Six Sigma. He understood many worlds: the corporation, the culture and human beings. Having built his life in various cultural contexts and languages, he had an inexhaustible ability to take a fresh perspective, shifting to a different angle whenever the situation required.
This pluri-disciplinarity made John what Lean considers a sensei – in Japanese, the word means “he who was born before” and denotes a person who helps others grow and encourages them to look beyond the borders of first understanding. John was able to see more, and taught everyone he worked with how to see more.
Lean is a means of achieving personal mastery: this is the essence of what I remember from talking to John. It is through working on ourselves that we can drive improvements around us. The good result, financial or other, is an outcome of the journey, not an objective in itself.
Thank you for your attention, dear reader. I will be back when I have more to share. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the summer.