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Today, we speak with Matt Long, VP of Continuous Improvement and 24 year veteran at Herman Miller Inc.
I have long been fascinated by Herman Miller. One of my favorite books is Leadership is an Art, by Max De Pree. Ever since I first read that book, I had always been curious about the company that Max’s family started and where he served as CEO – the place where the idea of Servant Leadership originally began – Herman Miller Inc.
Several months ago, curious about Herman Miller, I stumbled upon this video, where Herman Miller explained their story of how Lean came to be introduced at Herman Miller. Go watch the video and then come back to this interview. I’ll wait.
. . . Okay, you’re back. Good.
Now several things stuck out to me in that video:
- I loved that the primary driver was a need to improve, not novelty, that drove the Herman Miller team to seek help.
- And help they got. In that video, you learn about Ohba-san and how he and his team took Herman Miller under their wing. What was that like and why would they do that?
- How the Herman Miller Performance System not only teaches employees to solve problems more effectively but it also creates leaders.
- Herman Miller has just began their NPS journey. How does NPS work with the Herman Miller Performance System?
I’m very grateful to Matt Long and Herman Miller Inc. for taking the time to share with us his thoughts and for teaching the rest of us about the Herman Miller Performance System. Enjoy the interview and read more about Matt immediately after. Enjoy.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Can you tell my audience about yourself and your current work?
I’ve been with Herman Miller 24 years and my engineering leadership path took an abrupt turn in 1995 when we began pursuing the Toyota Production System based on a strong business need. We were very fortunate to become a project company for the Toyota Production System Support Center in 1996 when they coached us to build a model value stream in one of our plants. The results were so dramatic, our leadership decided to apply the system across our organization. It has given us an Operational Excellence capability we believe is unique in our industry. Since then I have been an avid student of TPS and am one of the leaders that is helping to strategize and coach its implementation across our enterprise.
I found the video explaining very beginnings of the Herman Miller Performance System fascinating. I’m curious, why did Mr. Ohba choose to spend so much time with Herman Miller on their dime?
There are three reasons of which I’m aware. First, it’s a demonstration of the character and values of Toyota. They have developed a superior approach to manufacturing and business and they are willing to share it with others that are truly interested. Second, they use these projects as a way to develop their own leader’s deep thinking about TPS. Many of our coaches from TSSC have gone on to leadership positions within Toyota. Third, it supports their commitment within NAFTA to share their manufacturing practices with US companies. By the way, Toyota recently made a couple of videos that highlight our story from their point of view. They’re posted on tssc.com under the heading of Projects/General Industry.
Out of curiosity, I wonder if you could share with us what items were on that original to-do list that Mr. Ohba wanted you all to consider?
Sure – I should mention that the first thing Mr. Ohba did was redirect us from starting at the beginning of our process (stamping) to the end of our process (shipping and assembly). The “to do” list was not so much a list as it was a shift in focus to understand our actual customer demand and getting the facts around what it would take to assemble and ship just what the customer needed each day. That would set the pace for the rest of the operation upstream and show us our true bottlenecks. At that time, we were building in weekly buckets so as long as we hit a quantity of units, we thought we were successful. We needed to learn to reduce our batch sizes to daily and ultimately one by one.
Can you share with us about the Herman Miller Performance System? Perhaps tell us about the level of training, content of the material, and how it is infused into the culture of the company?
The Herman Miller Performance System (HMPS) is our adaptation of TPS, so it follows very closely to Toyota’s system. We define it as “a system that focuses on understanding and meeting our customer’s needs exactly through the engagement and development of our employees”. It contains three elements including the Technical Tools (Toyota’s house), the 4 Philosophies (adopted from Toyota) and the Management System. We show these as three spokes in a wheel with our people at the center of the hub. It helps explain that we need to pay attention to the lengths of the spokes so our system doesn’t get out of balance. We’ve found that developing our people is one of the big keys to our success and a key part of growing the culture. For example, we have a program we call “Bridge” designed for front line support. The program lasts for 6 months and includes key HMPS concepts and their application on existing business needs, interpersonal and leadership training and an internship. By the time each person completes the program, the HMPS approach has become their “default”. That’s how we know we are changing our culture. It’s a big investment but we’ve shown that it pays back quickly.
Let’s shift topics a little bit. I want to discuss NPS. I know that Herman Miller has just began its NPS journey. Have you or do you expect to interact with your internal NPS advocates and become part of the closed-loop feedback system and make improvements a reality back into manufacturing?
We’ve been experimenting with NPS in a couple of pilot areas with the coaching of the Bain group to start slowly and build the system. It fits very well with our HMPS methodology of focusing on meeting customer demand and highlighting and solving problems on a progressive level. It is definitely one of the tools we are using to build a robust feedback loop for our entire operational value stream. But we’re only going expand as fast as we can grow our problem solving muscle.
Herman Miller has a long standing reputation in leadership development – with many books written about how people are developed there. In your view, has leadership development at Herman Miller been influenced to some degree by Toyota’s principle of Respect for People? How?
You’re right, Herman Miller’s founders, the DePrees, were early pioneers of servant leadership and employee engagement and their books are still used in many management courses. These are aspirational values that drew many of us to work at Herman Miller. I like to say that HMPS has given “legs” to these aspirations because the management system provides a framework for engagement at all levels. In our early years, Mr. Ohba had Dr. Kent Bowen come and speak to our top leadership about flipping the management pyramid upside down so that the employees providing value-added work are at the top and all the management levels below are there to support them and solve problems that get in their way. That has had a lasting impact on our leadership approach.
Back to the Herman Miller Performance System. Has Herman Miller gone beyond the 4 walls of manufacturing and applied HMPS to its supply chain and dealer network? If so, how is that going?
During the 2002 recession, we came to the realization that, in spite of our great progress with HMPS in manufacturing, our end customers were not feeling much of an improvement. It was then we discovered we needed to extend our value stream to our suppliers and our dealers. So we mobilized an effort we call the First Mile with our key suppliers and an effort with our Certified Dealers called the Last Mile. In both cases, we’re partnering with them to look at the entire value stream and work together on issues that impact quality, cost and delivery from the customer’s viewpoint. We’re coaching them on HMPS much like TSSC did with us. We also changed the name from Herman Miller Production System to Herman Miller Performance System to diffuse the perception that HMPS only applies to Manufacturing.
Something interesting is happening in the lean movement. The principles of Lean is taking hold of the entrepreneurship community, with the advent of the Lean Startup, from Eric Ries. If you’re familiar with the Lean Startup, what are your thoughts about it?
We’ve read Eric’s book and have begun thinking about how it could apply to our new product development. We like the idea of quick learning cycles to inform our direction in a way the truly meets the needs of the customer. It is also consistent with our coaching from Toyota to try experiments in small steps to incrementally arrive at a lasting solution.
What about applying Lean in the office or non-manufacturing environments? Is the Herman Miller Performance System at work in the Office?
We purposely kept our focus on manufacturing for a number of years to make sure we had a sustainable system before moving to new areas like the office. However, we now realize that our continued success depends on considering the entire Operational Value Stream from design to service. We’re actively working in new product development, product engineering, order management, and customer service/support in addition to the suppliers and dealers mentioned earlier. Each area brings its own challenges in understanding the “hidden” process and developing new tools that meet each business need but we are very excited about the progress and potential of this work.
Now, Art Smalley and I have a beef with something the rest of the lean world seems to have a love affair with: value stream mapping. I see many tool centric approaches to Lean, rather than a system, behavior, habitual, daily approach. What’s your reaction to that?
You’ve struck a nerve with me too! I see the same tendency for a company pursuing Lean to adopt tools before they have the basic thinking required to see what problem they were designed to solve and how to use them effectively. We learned that hard lesson early on as we pressed hard to implement tools like continuous flow, zero changeover, andon, etc. thinking THAT was TPS. One of my clearest memories is our coach, Shingo, making me stand at the assembly line to see the burden we had thrust on the backs of our employees by implementing too many tools to highlight problems but not having enough problem solving capability to eliminate them. He explained TPS is a side-by-side system with tools to highlight problems and human capability to solve problems. You only need enough tools in place to see the next problem, then you need to develop a problem solving muscle in order to respect and value your people. TSSC didn’t teach us value stream mapping until we were three years into our journey with some basic thinking of our own.
Matt, thank you for taking time to speak with me today. In closing, what would you share with others that are either struggling with their lean implementation?
First, Lean/TPS is a long term, systemic effort and there is no single “recipe” for success because every company’s culture and business situation is different. The key is aligning the effort with your business needs and using the PDCA loop to make incremental improvement and capture learning through frequent reflection. Don’t get discouraged! Ohno said an intelligent person is still wrong at least 50% of the time! Establish some early success and credibility by focusing your efforts on solving team member’s struggles. It shows you value them and builds momentum in the improvement culture. And finally, keep a long-term focus on building the customer value stream. It’s easy to get sidetracked on short term metrics or projects but it’s the customer that ultimately decides if we are bringing them value. I hope sharing our experiences will encourage others to stay the course!
About Matt Long
Matt Long currently leads a group of managers and coaches responsible for implementing the Herman Miller Performance System (HMPS), an adaptation of the Toyota Production System, within Suppliers, Operations, Distribution, Dealers, Sales and business processes. This system has transformed Herman Miller, a company already known for its iconic designs and its participative environment, into an organization of operational excellence. Matt has been with Herman Miller for 24 years. Prior to Herman Miller, Matt long gained experience in manufacturing and aerospace, for 10 years.
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