I’m excited to present to you this interview with noted teacher of lean management, author, and someone that brings sanity to the lean movement, Bob Emiliani. We’re grateful to Dr. Emiliani for taking time to share his thoughts with us today.
In this interview you’ll learn the following:
- What are the visible and not so visible hallmarks of Fake Lean versus Real Lean
- His thoughts on Lean beyond the manufacturing floor, including Lean Teaching and Lean Leadership and CEO focus.
- His advice for those just beginning their lean journey.
Enjoy the interview and please read more about Bob Emiliani after the article. And feel free to check out other lean leadership interviews.
Dr. Emiliani, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Could you please introduce yourself and your work to my audience?
I have been a professor of Lean management since 1999, teaching courses on Lean leadership and Lean supply chain, among others. Prior to that, I spent 15 years in the consumer products and aerospace industries in engineering, manufacturing, and supply chain management. I held leadership positions in these three disciplines. I first learned about Toyota’s production system from Shingijutsu consultants when I was in manufacturing. The first kaizens I participated in were a revelation. That was summer of 1994. But, what interested me far more than Lean tools and process improvement was how people were led in an environment where process improvement flourishes.
It was easy to see a few major differences, but how many other differences were there? And, what were the details that make up those differences? So, I decided to focus on Lean leadership. My research for the last 20 years has resulted in the creation of several new and innovative ways to understand and practice Lean leadership. I am particularly proud of how I transformed Lean leadership from an art (behaviors) to a science (leadership processes). That’s a breakthrough. It makes Lean leadership accessible to anyone. The combination of my practice of Lean leadership in industry and my research has enabled me to answer many important questions that people have had about Lean leadership.
What first got you started on your lean journey? Was there a specific event that sparked your lifelong interest?
It started around 1991, when I began reading books and papers related to leadership, organizational behavior, and organizational development. I read these things because I recognized there were fundamental problems and severe disconnects related to how people were led. Then I read Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, and started to see that processes were very bad and in need of improvement.
Also, I was determined to not lead how my bosses led because it harmed people and was ineffective. It resulted in people who were focused on self-preservation and maintaining the status quo – and thus perpetuate bad processes rather than improve them. But, what really sparked my interest in Lean management was my first experience with kaizen. It drove me to want to improve the workplace from both leadership and process perspectives, to make things better for people.
It appears that you spend a good amount of time on the Respect for People principle and also on Lean leadership. If you were speaking to a hard-headed, very results-only focused executive, how would you communicate the importance of Respect for People to him/her?
Yes, I focused on the two things that everyone else ignored because they were consumed with Lean tools. That gives me a big head start. I was the first academic, informed by a lot of industry experience, to focus Lean leadership and the “Respect for People” principle. One of the first papers I wrote in 1998 was titled, “Lean Behaviors,” which explained why leaders have to be behaviorally consistent with the process improvement outcomes that they seek. Meaning, leaders cannot behave in wasteful ways and expect process improvement activities to function correctly and result in the elimination of waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness. It was a landmark paper and it won a best paper award. Since then, my work has examined the leadership beliefs that inform behaviors, and understanding leadership processes and how to improve them.
Leaders have been the intended audience for my work from the start. I try to reach hard-headed, results-only focused executives through my talks, training, books, videos, research papers, etc. It’s a tough audience to influence. They have 25 or more years of work experience and see business a certain way, and they have great confidence that is the best way for business to function. The fact is, most hard-headed, results-only focused executives are not interested in understanding and practicing the “Respect for People” principle. The 100-plus year history of progressive management has clearly shown this to be the case, and I have learned this directly from many years of training senior leaders. They cannot see “Respect for People” problems, so therefore the problems do not exist. Problems that do not exist don’t need to be understood and improved.
Executives like that are mostly a lost cause because Lean’s message to them is: “Just about everything you know is wrong.” That’s a non-starter. Lean’s actual message is: “You have wonderful and exciting new things to learn that will result in better outcomes for everyone.” Unfortunately, few executives receive the positive message, and they continue to harm to people as if it in their job description to do so. Yet, I still try to reach them through my writings, which are often perceived as provocative, and by other means. My purpose is to help leaders understand Real Lean so they can improve the lives and livelihoods of others.
You’ve published a series of books called “Real Lean”. Why the distinction of “Real”? Perhaps can you illustrate (show, not tell) what “fake” lean looks like and feels like?
Yes, it is a six volume series of pocket-books that describe the many remarkable details and nuances associated with Real Lean in contrast to Fake Lean. I defined Real Lean as the application of both the “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” principles, while Fake Lean is the application of only the “Continuous Improvement” principle. This follows Toyota’s representation and that of other progressive management pioneers that preceded Toyota.
Fake Lean is easy to identify. It looks like this: Leaders who lay people off as a result on continuous improvement, blame people for errors, make zero-sum (win-lose) decisions, fail to eliminate non-Lean metrics, and bureaucratize Lean. It is easy to feel Fake Lean as well. It is oppressive, slow, and frustrating. It feels like working in an organization where appearances matter most, where good news is rewarded and bad news is punished, where kissing ass is more valued than recognizing and correcting problems, and where people cannot speak truth to power. This disrupts and blocks the flow of information, which in turn causes innumerable other problems. Adding Lean tools to an organization like that amounts to decorating the business solely to increase the stock price, executive pay, and personal prestige.
Too many Lean advocates, both people and organizations, have looked the other way instead of confronting this problem head-on, thinking that some improvement is better than no improvement, even though people have been harmed. That’s wrong. They need to walk the “Respect for People” talk.
I interviewed Jeff Liker recently in which he shared his viewpoint on Kata and how Kata contradicted what he understood as accepted truths in lean, such as root cause analysis. Dr. Liker argued with the fact that root cause analysis may or may not be included. He found the idea of not including root cause analysis somewhat disturbing. What do you think?
Yes, I read that. It is a good interview. I agree with Jeff. I have taught courses that include root cause analysis for 15 years. And I can tell you concretely that one or two out of 20 people can consistently do good root cause analyses. Most people are quite bad at it, even after a lot of practice. This tells me that root cause analysis is a capability that needs to be developed, but which does not need to be deployed for every problem. Though, it should be deployed by leaders for every problem that harms people – whether employees, suppliers, customer, investors, or communities.
For the last 15 years, I have asked graduate students in nearly every course I have taught the following question: “Who has seen a 5Whys or A3 report from a senior executive pertaining to a management problem?” The answer is: ZERO! And, most senior executives have been trained in how to do root cause analysis. This tells us something very important: Executives think that people below them cause all the problems and are the ones that need to do A3s, etc.
Understanding leadership as processes makes visible the hundreds of specific errors that leaders make, which moves the discussion from opinions about leadership behaviors to facts about leadership skills and effectiveness. Leaders can no longer hide. The point is that root cause analysis is a capability that needs to be developed and used by everyone, CEO on down, when appropriate. And, let’s not lose sight of the fact that leaders are more likely to do great harm to the business than workers, so there is a clear need for them to perform root cause analysis for management problems and identify practical countermeasures.
Finally, my opinion on this is informed in part by having taught a unique course for the last 10 years in which students perform detailed analyses of corporate failures using a structured problem-solving process similar to A3. You’d be amazed at how often the exact same errors are repeated. The human and financial costs are enormous. Yet, when major corporate failures occur, nobody does a formal failure analysis. Instead of doing that, and improving leadership processes, people are fired. We cannot keep accepting this as the preferred solution to major business problems.
Art Smalley and I had a good discussion on a concern we both share: value stream mapping. What are your thoughts?
I share this concern. Generally, the widespread interest in Lean tools has been detrimental to Real Lean management, and has fueled the rapid growth and persistence of Fake Lean. The organizations that promote Lean tools have done near irreparable harm. While they have profited handsomely, the people who followed them have been terribly misled. They have wasted a lot of time, energy, and money, and have little to show for it. Most organizations cited as Lean exemplars are actually doing Fake Lean. They are doing nothing that is worth looking at – except to study why leaders so easily succumbed to Fake Lean. Let’s learn from their mistakes.
With regard to value stream maps, their importance and worth has been blown way out of proportion in terms of their use for improving processes. You do not need value stream maps to know where problems are or to improve a process. Value stream maps are just one of many pieces of information that can be called upon to help people grasp a situation. They are of no greater importance than other type of information that one may need in order to to understand a process.
Your audience may enjoy this blog post, which informs readers of who benefits most from value stream maps and for what purpose and this blog post, which criticizes how value stream maps have greatly extended the lead-time for making actual improvements.
You can add the “Lean teaching” movement to that list. I too have taken Lean beyond manufacturing by applying Lean principles and practices to teaching in higher education. Every aspect of Lean management can be used mostly as-is, and it works wonderfully well. Students love it, as many years of data show. Like Lean Startup and Lean Branding, it is student-centered and uses rapid cycle experimentation and feedback. Lean teaching is gaining a following among university professors and K-12 teachers as well. I wish that people who teach Lean, whether trainers or educators, would do so using Lean teaching. It would be nice for students to see that consistency, which will deepen their learning on multiple levels.
Things like the Lean Startup, Kanban for Creative and Knowledge work, etc., are good if their connection to Lean principles and practices is strong, and bad if the connection is weak, incorrect, or non-existent. People need to think before creating or adopting new ideas or methods to test their consistency. If they don’t do this, then they are indiscriminately adding another tool to the tool box and will cause problems for people. It will create confusion, slow down improvement, and garble information flows.
For those just at the beginning of their lean journey, what advice would you have for them?
To be good at anything requires a lot of work. That, in turn, requires years, if not decades, of commitment. You have to gain new knowledge through reading, observation, practice, and so on, in a never-ending cycle. You should be aware that there is far more to Lean management than meets the eye, and thus careful not to misjudge the challenge. It is a lot like learning to play a musical instrument.
Kaizen is a key process for learning Lean management and for achieving flow. Therefore, it is important to gain an accurate understanding of kaizen and practice it correctly (see the book Toyota Kaizen Methods by Isao Kato and Art Smalley). Currently, I am working on a book that presents kaizen in a way that no other book does. I hope it will inspire people think more deeply about kaizen, learn more about kaizen through practice, and its importance in Lean management and achieving flow. There is no Lean without kaizen.
Let me also say that Real Lean is a lot of fun. But, Fake Lean is not. So, do Real Lean instead. Leaders who make Lean fun find that people flock to it and are happy to get involved in process improvement. Have fun together and make material and information flow.
Thanks Dr. Emiliani. Is there anything you’d like to share with my audience?
First, thank you for interviewing me. I hope that you and your audience find this interview informative and helpful. They can find more information on my web sites, bobemiliani.com and leanprofessor.com.
When it comes to comprehending Lean leadership, everyone begins with leadership behaviors, because it is observable, albeit not so easily quantifiable. But, to really understand Lean leadership and practice it well, one has to dig deeper. You have to clearly understand the differences in beliefs between the leaders of conventionally managed organizations compared to the beliefs of leaders of Lean organizations. This is what value stream maps are really good for – not for shop or office kaizen. Then, one has to begin to move forward and understand leadership processes and the hundreds of errors that every leader makes, which can then be corrected using standardized work, visual controls, etc.
There is much more to Lean leadership than just leadership behaviors or having a casual understanding what “Respect for People” means. This level of understanding assures that Fake Lean will remain common. The challenge for leaders is to make Fake Lean rare and Real Lean common.
About Bob Emiliani
M.L. “Bob” Emiliani is a professor, researcher, author, historian of progressive management, and executive trainer. He has over 30 years of experience in manufacturing (aerospace, consumer products) and service industries, and has had front-line responsibility for implementing Lean principles and practices in the manufacturing shop floor, supply networks, and in higher education. Bob was the first to focus on Lean leadership as an area of scholarly research and is a leading figure dedicated to helping people correctly understand and practice Lean management.
Born in Miami, Florida, his father Cesare was an internationally recognized geologist and micropaleontologist and his mother Rosa Maria was a homemaker. He has a sister, Sandra. Bob graduated from Coral Gables High School and went on to the University of Miami where he received a B.S. in mechanical engineering. He then earned an M.S. degree in chemical engineering from the University of Rhode Island and a Ph.D. from Brown University. Bob married Lucinda Bronico in 1985 and they have two adult children, Michael and Julia.
Bob’s many interests over the years have led to diverse professional and personal capabilities, including: engineer, manager, artist, author, publisher, bass guitar player, photographer, craftsman (bicycle frame builder), cook, gardener, scholar, and teacher.
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