Work hard or work smart; These are your options. If you are not continuously questioning your work process, then you may be working hard at a detrimental loss in time or money. Lean management has become a universal management tool for delivering value and optimizing work processes through refining the workflow.

Rogue got in touch with the leading expert in Lean Management, Dr. Michael Ballé to find out more.

Dr. Michael Ballé, is the co-author of THE LEAN STRATEGY and THE GOLD MINE trilogy. He coaches CEOs on the gemba, is Managing Director of ESG Consultants and co-founder of the Projet Lean Entreprise . This is France’s leading lean initiative, conducted in collaboration with Telecom Paris, where Michael is associate researcher, as well as the and of the French Lean Institute

For over a decade, he has focused on the human implications of lean implementation in fields as diverse as manufacturing, healthcare and administrative processes and helped many companies to run successfully their lean programs. As a cognitive sociologist, he has taught organization theory in several business schools.

A Short Introduction to Lean

Lean management is an approach to running an organisation that supports the concept of continuous improvement. It is an ongoing effort to improve products, services, or processes, which require “incremental” improvement over time in order to increase efficiency and quality.

Lean management uses methods for eliminating factors that waste time, effort or money. This is accomplished by analysing a business process and then revising it or cutting out any steps that do not create value for customers.

These lean principles ensure that the processes involved with bringing a product to market remain cost effective from beginning to end.

Lean production or lean manufacturing is a systematic method for the elimination of wastes within a manufacturing process. This may include wastes created through unevenness in work loads, overburden and any work that does not add value. From the point of view of the customer who consumes a service or product, “value” is any process or action that a client would be willing to pay for. In essence, lean is focus on making obvious what appends value by decreasing everything else.

The Interview

Question 1. Hi Michael, can you tell us how you were first introduced to the Lean Management Concept?

Michael Ballé: My father was head of product planning at Renault in the seventies, and discovered Toyota in 1975. He was instantly fascinated, and kept returning for study trips every year. I did not pay much attention until years later, in the early 1990s, when he’d become de COO of Valeo, a major auto supplier, and I started research for my doctoral dissertation on mental models.

I was looking for a real-life situation where people would look at the same object with clearly differing worldviews. This, it turns out, is a rare situation. At the time Toyota was starting its European operations and was trying to work with suppliers to see if they could teach them their famous Toyota Production System. I latched on to that effort, purely as a researcher.

What I saw was captivating. I had been researching management theory for a while, and Toyota simply did everything differently – and it worked. The Toyota engineer who led the project and who opened my eyes to “before we make parts, first we made people,” convinced me that I couldn’t just learn this stuff from the outside – it could only be learned by practice.

As well as teaching, I started part-time consulting, and learned to apply the lean tools with supervisors, then to run programs for plant managers, then to work with small company CEOs and progressively with larger and larger businesses. I also met Dan Jones, one of the founders of the lean movement, who became my mentor in lean thinking. In that long process, I discovered there was far more to lean thinking than a production optimization method, as most people think, but a full business system, including innovation, leadership and strategy.

Question 2. What makes Lean so revolutionary?

Michael Ballé: Lean is a different paradigm. Everything we know about management comes out of the Smith, Taylor, Ford, Fayol, Sloan, Drucker, Porter school of overwhelming force. Set yourself a goal, come up with a plan, turn it into objectives for other people, specialize roles and staff them, and roll it out. The basic structure is one of specialized silos controlled by accounting tools, and where innovation and change occurs through staff driven projects. 

Typically, any Western company is run on the assumption that managers are there to manage, which is decide who does what when, and then quality is inspected at the end of the process by a specialist steam, which then produces rules for line managers. Any change has to be driven by convincing or forcing middle-managers to do things differently.

In a lean company, the work is driven by “sell one, make one” just-in-time thinking controlled by a specialist department that issues Kanban cards corresponding to real-time customers demand and that spread dynamically throughout the system. Quality and delivery are managers’ responsibility. To succeed they need to first develop their people’s autonomy to dealing with unusual situations and second, constantly improve work conditions, such as manpower, machines, materials and methods. 

To keep pace with external changes, in a lean company, managers need to continuously involve their teams in thinking about value and improvement, simply to keep the just-in-time system going. The aim is seeking customers’ smiles from engaging people by constantly challenging and supporting them in looking for a better way – smoother, more seamless, easier ways of satisfying customers better.

It’s very different with the traditional management approach where company procedures take precedence over customer preferences, silo turf wars over the overall continuity of business, middle managers constantly repress talent and tell people to shut up and work – and innovation has to be forced fed through radical, destructive changes. 

Lean is revolutionary because it’s a learning system that aims to sustain the original passion of designers to satisfy customers and bring it all the way to the production line where people do specialized tasks. The aim of lean is “one time customer, lifelong customer” through maintaining the continuous flow of business, which means no financial shenanigans, no strikes, no consolidations or restructuring, no screwing up the supply chain – in other words, none of the typical MBA playbook moves. Not surprisingly, it creates higher energy, better performing companies.

Question 3. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, what are the obstacles to a company initiating their workflow to Lean and how do you solve this?

Michael Ballé: The main obstacle is attitudes. Lean comes from Toyota, and is really a response to W. Edwards Deming’s original challenge to compete through quality in Japan in the 1950s. Deming saw clearly that in order to compete in the knowledge age, companies needed to develop what he called a theory of profound knowledge with four dimensions:

  • A theory of systems
  • A theory of variation
  • A theory of knowledge
  • A theory of psychology

The lean classic tools are not meant to organize you better, but as exercises to deepen your understanding of these four theories about how the business works.

At which point you encounter two types of people: the people who want to succeed sustainably by growing the strength of the system they’ve been entrusted with? Or the people who want to succeed in the short term by finding how to game the system and damn everything else as long as they end up ahead.

If you want to grow the system, you’re always looking to deepening your understanding of what is going on, and encouraging all people around you to do so and better work together. This is what lean is meant to do. But it means that rather than hold on to simple precepts, you keep challenging and exploring new dimensions of old truths. This Asian-born thinking is closer to buddhism, where the fundamental ideas are always there, but where the buddha himself encouraged his followers to test any conclusion against real life and explore and change their minds – in order to more deeply understand the principles – than to our own rule-based thinking.

If you’re just looking for a way to game the system, you’ll tend to reduce everything to simple routines and force them onto everyone through sheer power and force of character, and indeed some people do interpret lean as operational excellence in that way: don’t challenge the financial strategy, just make all operations more efficient to reduce costs.

Whether you come across one type or leader or the other, you will have widely diverging outcomes. Then, when you practice true lean with an opened minded, investigative leader, it all depends of whom you come across in middle management ranks and so on. Lean is a truly people-centric method based on improving the flow to FIND real-life problems for customers and employees, in order to FACE the elephants in the room no one wants to look at, FRAME general way of understanding the challenge so everyone gets it, and then FORM solutions from every person’s contribution in insights and initiatives.

Alternatively, many leaders believe it’s their job to DEFINE the situation in the boardroom, DECIDE on a solution, DRIVE it through the ranks and then DEAL with the consequences when things don’t turn out as they hoped. Those kinds of leaders are incapable of facing real, deep issues that come from the management team itself, and lean will simply not work in this case.

Question 4. Many people feel that Lean exposes them to becoming a weak link in the chain of production; is Lean really about cutting staff and overloading the employees with excessive tasks to fill the gaps.

Michael Ballé: Well, that’s precisely the wrong interpretation of lean I was discussing – lean tools observed in the East and reinterpreted in the classic western management worldview of using power to squeeze customers, employees, suppliers, neighborhood etc.

Yes, lean has a profound theory of productivity, but it’s system level productivity: Quality of choice for customers, productivity of capital investments, productivity of labor by not doing wasteful tasks and quality of purchasing.

The key change in lean thinking is that we see hierarchy as a chain-of-help, not a chain-of-command. Commands are driven by customer demand. Frontline staff are trained to current standards. But then they daily encounter obstacles and daily issues. Management’s role is to create a secure environment where no one faces a problem alone but you can stop and call for help. On a Toyota line, if the team leader can’t fix the problem in a minute or so, the entire line stops. This gives each operator the power to stop the production line rather than accept doubtful work. It’s very powerful – and transforms the relationship towards management.

Like any method, lean success depends on the attitude and motivation of the person opening a lean book -they’re like to find in it what they are looking for, and to cherry-pick according to their needs. Alternatively, they can also see the grander vision (which has been communicated from the very start of lean) of a people-centric time-based management for strategic competitive advantage and start the journey of de-programming oneself from Taylor/Ford/Sloan routines and learning a completely new way of managing through sustaining the willingness of people to do a good job – the positive energies everyone bring to their work.

It’s a choice. But you need to be open minded to start with to really read what is written in lean books (and look for the right books), rather than immediately reinterpret the first thing you come across according to your instant needs.

Question 6. Can you define what Kaizen means to you?

Michael Ballé: To me? Okay, that’s very personal, but I see two cognitive paths. One is the low path: work reduced to a series of routines. Yes, it’s comfortable, but then habituation sets in: it’s less fun every day. Then one day change comes, and you’re so set in your ways that any small departure from your comfort zone triggers self-confidence crisis, identity knee-jerk reactions and passive aggressive reactions. It’s a miserable path.

But there’s also a cognitive high path. On any endeavor, you can define an ideal, far from what can be done right now, a North Star. Then you can learn to analyze problems until you recognize typical problems and have a repeatable analysis method – as well as recognizing “no-go” zones, and listing all the common mistakes to avoid. This energy gives you the energy to try the next step to get closer to the ideal. Try something different, try something new, try something difficult.

This is what I try to do with my writing, and try to teach at the workplace.  The belief that there’s always a better outcome and a better way, and to seek it through small steps rather than ultra-solutions (blowing up everything with the problem). In progressing step by step, you uncover talent in unexpected places and learn to surround yourself with positive people who also seek a better way.

As you connect high energy people with common kaizen goals, and you deepen your common theories of how things work, and what you want to avoid – amazing things start happening. You never know what to start with, but it’s always good and surprising. And fun.

There you go, my personal take, for what it’s worth.

Question 7. Can you share any future plans in relation to Lean that you are working on?

Michael Ballé: I’m currently working on a “Lean Digital Leadership” book with the founders of a hyper-growth digital company that sells cars over the Internet. The challenge is to describe lean to a millennial audience, and deepen the principles while finding a new language. Not going terribly well so far, and our first drafts are far from what we’d like, but it’s fascinating work.

Every new book is the opportunity to walk the talk and seek the Yin-Yang dimension of new product introduction: what are the standards we must absolutely keep because they are the key to the value customers really seek, and what must we change to stay with the spirit of the times. As the founder of Toyota once said “Open the window. It’s a big world out there.” As I get older, and more set in my ways, I find cultivating beginner’s mind the key to sustain the kaizen spirit. 

I truly believe lean is the only current viable alternative to financial management – it upholds values of sustainable growth through people-centric improvement and respect for each person’s point of view. It upholds the engagement of willingness as opposed to the endless power games to force things one’s way. It creates lasting wealth from quality and productivity through talent and passion. But this high path is also demanding, and if we commit to lean, we must all learn and re-learn every day to be the change we want to lead.

The Lean Strategy

If you are interested in learning to develop a mindset of continuous improvement and optimisation in your industry. Michael’s Book is available on Amazon.

Get Lean Strategy now


Founder of Rogue Magazine. Specialist in Design, Social Media and Marketing. With over 15 years experience dealing with Global Brands.

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