Dan Prock on Leading Lean Projects



For this episode of the Tom on Leadership podcast, I interviewed veteran Lean expert and coach Dan Prock on the topic of Leading Lean.

Same Blueprint, 30% Cheaper, 50% Better

Dan’s first exposure to Lean came when he worked at Cummins making locomotive engines.

Their Japanese counterpart, Komatsu, made locomotive engines using the same blueprints, but Komatsu’s were being made at 30% lower cost, and 50 to 60% better quality. Dan’s boss figured that Cummins had five to 10 years before Komatsu put them out of business — long enough for Cummins to figure out how to learn from the Japanese.

And Cummins did, and Dan was part of that Lean Journey. That led Dan to get a Masters and PhD, and uncover the limits of what engineering can do to make production and improvement work.

Command and Control does’t work. It harms people’s ability to find their own intrinsic motivation. An ideal size for a shop is 200 people. As organization size grows, we almost inevitably create silos, which ignores the flow of value creation to the customer.

If not Command and Control, then what?

The Lean approach is coaching. A Lean coach won’t give you answers, but will guide you to find your own answers, and will ensure you become an answer-creator in your own right.

The Coaching Kata

There are these basic steps to improvement.

Dan suggests one start with a measurement — using metrics that areprocess oriented. (Most traditional management metrics won’t work.) For example, you might notice that lead time on producing something is, say, eight days. And we ask, what’s a reasonable target to go for? Suppose you target six days.

Second, with the measurement chosen, you now go look at what’s stopping you from being at six days. You use the scientific method.

You go to wherever the work is, and look at what’s happening. In manufacturing, you look at the steps to process the materials, assemble them, and so on. In service work you look at the steps to deliver the service. What’s taking the longest? What’s the bottleneck? Where is there delay or rework?

Third, you analyze each process step that might be slowing you down, and problem solve. Can we run a second shift on this one machine that’s our bottleneck? Is it breaking down a lot? Can we cross train people to increase bandwidth? Re-engineer this process to take less time?

And each week you ask, are we better than last week?

No Big Assessment

The Kata says, don’t bother with an assessment period. Assessments generally result in a long list of things to fix, and 95% never get fixed. So creating that list is waste. Don’t bother. Look for a large improvement opportunity, and fix what you find. Simplify things.

Each time you hit a goal, you can step back and ask, do we want to reduce time more, or work on quality now, or what? And you pick what’s most important to fix or improve.

Leaders Don’t Give Answers

A good leader who is coaching, acts a little like a cast for a broken bone. The cast holds the two ends of the broken bone in alignment, close to each other, not moving. The natural healing action of the bone can then knit the break.

As a leader who is coaching, you hold your people and the work close to each other. You don’t let people wander away. You don’t reach into the gap and take their work away from them. You hold them in your focus, so they hold the problem in their focus. The natural desire of the worker to improve their work, plus some training on how to solve problems, allows workers to do the work and solve the problem and fix the process.

A good coach has what Dan calls “kaizen mind” or a psychology focused on purpose and presence.

The coach always knows what purpose or intent she has for each meeting, each conversation, etc.

Then the coach has awareness and is fully present with the other person or people. With practice, one can maintain presence under pressure. That’s vital because under pressure one becomes tempted to break the Lean culture and revert to Command and Control.

No Grasping

When one focuses on excellence and process, and lets go of any particular outcome, one can avoid the ways that grasping harms the mind.

Grasping disturbs the mind in three ways:

  1. You’re not fully present. The grasping mind is half in the future.
  2. You’re unable to see clearly. The desired thing seems artificially good, and you ignore risks, flaws, tradeoffs, and drawbacks.
  3. You feel separate from the thing you grasp for — as if, without it, you yourself are incomplete.

You can have the good parts of ambition without the downsides of grasping. To do that, become focused on the excellence of the work process, not on the work outcome.

It’s no surprise that Coach John Wooden never asked his players to win a game (an outcome) but only on whether they were doing their best in the moment (process).

Or as David Marquet would ask, “Looking back at it tomorrow or a year from now, what will we wish we’d done?”

As Dan puts it, “Every day do continuous improvement. All others, case by case.” Even if you do break your process to ship order X, come back the next day and return to your focus on continuous improvement.

Leading Lean and the School for Problem Solving

If you try to copy Toyota, you’ll fail. That’s because Toyota is not an organization focused on making cars. It’s a school for solving problems.

What we see as The Toyota Way (of making cars) is nothing but the output of the Toyoto School for Solving Problems.

If someone were to give you a perfect replica of someone else’s Lean production process, you couldn’t sustain it. (The track record of people sustaining Lean after copying the Toyota Production System is about 10%.)

When you transform the workplace into a school for solving problems, Lean results. And it’s sustainable.

You have to be a gardener. Lean is not mechanical – it’s grown organically through Leading Lean.

About Dan

After a BS in engineering and a Ph.D. in Psychology Dan interned at AT&T. He worked as an internal facilitator at Cummins Engine and later consulting for the Kaizen Institute of America and Optiprise Consulting. He led hundreds of kaizen events at manufacturers including GM and Robert Bosch, and in services at Hertz Rental Car, Citco financial, and others. He has coached leaders in value stream transformations and in the coaching skills of Toyota kata. He is currently available at senseiway.com, the web site of his forthcoming book.

Dan’s Kaizen Event Facilitator’s Guide can be found here.

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