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Nick Ruhmann
December 15, 2016

Finding a "Real" Lean Culture Just by Caring

I had a colleague this past week suggest I read this book they'd stumbled upon 'cause apparently, "This guy sounds just like you!".

Screenshot 2016-12-13 21.28.37.png

The book is titled "Everybody MATTERS, The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your PEOPLE Like FAMILY"written by Bob Chapman, CEO and Chairman at Barry-Wehmiller Companies, Inc.

Indeed I did.

PS to that colleague - I HOPE, I sound even remotely close to Bob when I speak - as this story is downright inspiring to me.

I'd heard of the Barry-Wehmiller company before, having grown up in southern Illinois, it's a pretty familiar name to those close to the St. Louis metro area.  But honestly - I had no idea that Barry-Wehmiller had so wholeheartedly embraced a philosophy of management that should be what lean managers strive for.

The only part of the book that bothered me was the point in the book when they decide to adapt lean methods into their culture...

"We scheduled a kickoff meeting in Green Bay with a group of senior leaders to learn about Lean and begin our continuous-improvement journey. On the first afternoon, a consultant gave an opening presentation on Lean. After forty-five minutes, I stood up and walked out of the room in frustration.  The presentation was all about justifying bringing Lean tools into an organization because they help add to the bottom line and get more out of people. The presenter actually said these words, "This will help you get more out of people." That's when I left the room...
...With fire in my voice, I said, "Brian, we are never going to have a Lean journey like that in our organization.  We are not going to suck the life out of people and take advantage of them in that way. We are going to build a Lean culture focused on people or we're not going to do it at all."

First,  bravo Mr. Chapman for being principled enough to follow your own compass.  Second, I'm very sorry that was the "lean" you were introduced to.  I find it ironic and sad that Bob Chapman had to build a "Lean Culture focused on people" as if it were something new and different. 

Ironic because, had Bob gone to Toyota to learn the Toyota Production System he'd have found that's exactly what real lean is. Maybe not in the exact same way they've found to make it work at Barry-Wehmiller, but certainly within the same spirit.

A real lean consultant would have known that:

The Toyota Way is rooted in the concept of "Respect for People" and would never:

  • overburden employees
  • create an environment of fear
  • think of people as "heads" or "variable resources"

Real lean knows that you cannot truly have continuous improvement, everywhere, all the time IF you don't respect people as people. 

Real lean knows that the best way to build / show respect for people is to trust them, listen to them, guide them, thereby - building better people.

In this way, people are not a variable cost you want to flex up and down - but a fixed cost, or even a capital investment that continues to appreciate.  Like a chunk of gold, that will increase in mass if you only appreciate it - or shrink if you ignore it.

Bob may not have gone to Toyota, but according to his book he did meet with Jim Womack of the Lean Enterprise Institute.  Poor Jim Womack even laments:

"Bob, I can't believe I wrote this book that's been around the world, that a huge number of organizations in the country are embracing...I can't believe it hasn't changed the world"

What does this say about us?  What does it say that you can't almost hear the angst in Jim Womack's voice about the undelivered potential of this alternative way of management?  

You can practically hear Jim thinking, "How many times do we have to say this?"

So many say they're lean consultants, OpEx professionals, etc...but why is it so rare to find a leader that can actually practice it?  

(let's be honest here...it's very, very, VERY rare.)

There's also a section of the book detailing how they weathered the financial crash of 2008, asking all employees to share in the burden - rather than having a layoff and catastrophically impacting a few.

This hit close to home for me - as the company I worked for at the time - did nearly the same thing.  We did it a little differently, a single week at a time per month and we focused it on salary ranks rather than hourly (as well as giving up all bonuses and merit increases) but it was a similar strategy.  

Why would an organization do this?  I explained this to another colleague a couple weeks ago:

"Our clients don't care how great you did this year...or how great a team did, or a division...they see us as one company, one team.  It's about time we thought of ourselves that way..."

Business organizations don't get to succeed or fail in silos in the real world.  This is a team sport - and good teams pick up the slack for a injured member.

 Bob Chapman and Barry-Wehmiller should be proud of what they're trying to do, the lives they've impacted, and those they might yet inspire to.  I'm sure things aren't perfect, no company ever is.  But if Bob is half as sincere as he comes across in this book, and they keep trying - they have a bright future ahead of them.


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