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Bruce Hamilton

Quality Insider

The Emperor’s New Huddle Boards

Top managers must clothe themselves in honesty

Published: Monday, March 30, 2015 - 17:00

After a one-day observation at a local company, I participated in a wrap-up meeting with the general manager and his team.

“We’ve been at this for five years,” the general manager said to me, proudly referring to his division’s lean implementation. “Our 5S rating is over 85 percent, and every department spends one hour per week on problem solving.” He continued on for several more minutes, extolling the vibrancy of their transformation, citing numbers of A3s, kaizen events, and gemba walks. “I visit team huddle boards every month to monitor adherence. And our corporate maturity score is 3.5 out of 4!” Finally, in an attempt at humility, he glanced over at the other managers in the room and concluded, “Of course, there’s always room for improvement. What did you see when you visited our site today?”

I took a long pause before answering his question. My tour of the facility had come at his request to provide a rough idea of how the site would fare in a Shingo Prize challenge. I had spent a half-day in the factory with the factory manager and several hours in support departments trying to understand the current condition of their improvement process. My observation bore out the appearance of various activities he described, but there seemed to be no associated outcomes. Employees were going through the motions, but not creating change. A3s posted on the factory wall had grown stale. Huddle boards, notable for their abundance, were updated inconsistently.

“Where’s the problem solving?” I asked a supervisor at one of the factory huddle boards.

“We get to it when we can, but it’s been pretty busy lately,” she said, in a tone that sounded like an apology.

I continued, “How often do you get a visit from management?”

“Once in a while,” she chuckled, “but that’s OK. We have enough problems as it is.”

The factory manager standing next to me looked on disapprovingly at his supervisor’s quip. Later in the tour, he said to me, “We need to change our culture. They are not on board.”

“Who are they?” I asked.

“The front line,” he responded.

As we continued into the office spaces, I commented, “It looks like you have a lot of lean props, like A3s, huddle boards, and color-coding, but I don’t see much happening.”

“That’s why you’re here,” he replied. “We made some big changes—cut costs and reduced lead times—at the start of our lean journey, but we have had difficulty getting employees engaged.”

“What have you done previously to promote lean?” I asked.

The factory manager responded, “We had consultants swarming the place for a couple years, and spent a small fortune on huddle boards. We provided lean training for everyone. Our first wave of improvements seemed to go well, but then we stalled.”

I agreed. “Yes, the process appears to have stagnated. Why are you interested in challenging for the Shingo Prize?”

After a moment, the factory manager replied, “Our GM has an interest.”

Back at the boardroom debrief, I responded to the general manager’s question. “You have a very successful, traditionally managed business,” I began, tempering my comments. “But I don’t sense an environment that supports improvement and problem solving.” The president frowned a bit. I continued, “Use of lean tools like visual boards and problem solving are inconsistent and not purposeful. From a distance, it looks like something’s happening, but closer inspection suggests that problems are not being addressed, and resources for improvement are scarce. Most of the activity is being generated by a few supervisors.” I continued a bit longer, amplifying my observations with specific details from the floor.

As I spoke, I noted that several of the president’s staff glancing to him for a response. I concluded, “Several times today I heard that employees don’t have the right culture. The responsibility for changing that culture resides in this room. My recommendation is that your management team reevaluate your roles and participation to create a culture that’s more favorable to improvement.”

After a short, deafening silence, a manager responded nervously, addressing the president as much as me. “I don’t agree that our process is broken as Mr. Hamilton suggests. We’ve made a lot of progress.” Other managers nodded in agreement.

“Bobbleheads,” I thought to myself.

Bolstered by this support, the president addressed me. “Well, everyone is welcome to their opinions. We’d like to thank you for coming in today.” The meeting was over.

Call me a bad salesman, but the emperor had no lean.


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.