Leading teachers in the lean movement are starting to refer to now as the “management age” of lean. This follows the “tool age,” which ran roughly from 1990 to 2006. The meaning here is that companies and organizations have hit a wall with the mere implementation of lean tools and realize that they must deploy lean thinking strategically throughout the enterprise to reap continued benefits. It’s what Toyota has done all along with its Toyota Production System (TPS).
“Getting the Right Things Done: A leader’s guide to planning and execution” by Pascal Dennis (Lean Enterprise Institute, 2006) reflects this shift with the fictitious tale of Atlas Industries, which finds itself heading toward extinction despite smart leaders and use of continuous-improvement tools and practices.
Published by the Lean Enterprise Institute, the book explores in detail how to practice hoshin kanri, or strategy deployment, by following Atlas’ efforts step by step. Despite the heft of both the connotation and denotation of “strategy deployment,” Dennis’ book is an easy--almost breezy--read and is packed with supporting examples such as A3 documents, value-stream maps, brainstorming diagrams and metrics dashboards. Don’t let the simple dialogue and easy-to-grasp presentation fool you, though. Dennis taps into what is a serious and terrifying reality for many U.S. manufacturers.
Early on we learn that Atlas, a producer of components in the heating/ventilating/air conditioning sector, has lost its largest customer and is on the verge of becoming a commodity producer--and an overpriced one at that. It has not met the challenges of rising material costs, overseas competition and pricing pressure. The owner, Bill Harman, is on the verge of selling the company when he has a personal crisis: Who am I? What do I believe in?
Instead of selling, Harman tries to save his company by hiring John Karras, a former executive at a Toyota supplier. As president and COO, Karras faces dwindling morale, a “mess” in operations and a bone-dry new product development pipeline; but he recognizes leaders among the managers and starts a campaign to turn the entire company into a group of innovative, self-improving, resilient thinkers and doers all pointing toward the same goals.
“We’re going to define our objectives, then develop and deploy strategies to achieve them,” Karras explains to Harman over a drink. “Companies spend most of their time selecting the perfect objective — and precious little time on deployment. We won’t make the mistake. Anybody can make a plan; but deployment is the hard part.”
Karras leads the group of managers in numerous discussions and exercises to prompt them to define goals at the company, division and department level; grasp the current state and the gap between it and the desired state; choose appropriate metrics; and continue to plan, check, do and adjust. Dennis, a former manager at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada, injects the tale with familiar figures: overworked and burned-out product engineers; skeptical production leaders who view the suddenly inquisitive managers as pests; and well-meaning division managers who spend their time putting out fires and claim to have no time for ongoing process improvement for fear of losing the ship. But through persistent, gentle questioning and a level approach to implementation, Karras prods the group to self-diagnose and treat its own diseases rather than just symptoms.
While the protagonists in this story work at a manufacturing plant, Dennis portrays their problems and solutions in such a way that readers can apply the teachings to any company or organization. The focus is not on the technical aspects of production but on the mental models and approaches to work that can produce stable processes, which are designed to support clearly defined strategy.
Dennis’ latest work — he also wrote “Andy and Me—Crisis and Transformation on the Lean Journey” and other books — comes at a crucial time for U.S. business. It’s not longer enough to reduce costs and improve efficiency; companies must tap the only resources that make them unique — people and their ideas and abilities. Strategy deployment, done properly and consistently, will do that.