Who said Lean Six Sigma is not about People?

Article written by Michael Ballè

Without mastering these seven foundational behavioral skills, even with their heart in the right place, leaders fumble their presence at the gemba and, consequently, feel disappointed by the bottom-line results they get from their lean efforts.

With Lean Thinking, Jim Womack and Dan Jones ushered a true (and rare) revolution in management thinking: To deliver a superior order of performance, leaders should lead from the workplace, the “gemba” to use the lean term (it means real place, real products, real people) and not from the boardroom.

Like the air we breathe, the established paradigm of 20th century leadership is so ubiquitous that it is hard for anyone to question it. A leader’s job is to come up with strategies for what to do and how to do it, and managers execute organizational processes so that employees do what they’re told. “Gemba” leadership turns this idea on its head, asserting that superior results will be achieved if leaders spend all their time encouraging small-step continuous improvement at the workplace (“kaizen”) and then they’ll learn about their strategies and processes from working with their people rather than thinking in their stead.

A seductive idea, but rather hard to swallow — as any leader who’s taken his or her first steps with lean management will bear witness. A leader serious about learning lean will first find a sensei and commit to “gemba walks.” During these tours of the shop floor (or office workspace), the sensei will make a big production of showing apparently minor things out of place, such as a pile of files on someone’s desk or a crate in a corridor, and then will demand (yes! Demand!) 1) better visual control (whatever that means) and 2) problem solving, sometimes in the form of improvement workshops to discover the causes of these problems.

To the traditional leader, no matter how genuine their interest in lean, this is totally bewildering:

  • Why should these details matter?
  • Why should they be concerned about them – and not frontline management?
  • What do we expect to gain from fixing that level of “problem”?
  • How can any of this somehow translate in superior company-level performance?

The paradigm gap and the very different management assumptions made in lean thinking, make these questions hard to respond to satisfactorily, other than saying that leaders who’ve done it in earnest have had the results (after 20 years of documented lean evidence, no one much disputes that).

First, watch out for the No. 1 trap. As is well known in lean circles, the leader is likely to latch on to one specific tool and pull it back to their understanding of project management. For instance, the leader will fall in love with, say value-stream mapping and use it as a mainstream management tool: They’ll hire a lean specialist to map processes, organize workshops to improve processes with nominal employee participation (we’re involving people, aren’t we?), establish performance improvement targets and, well, manage the “transformation.”

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