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TPS: The People Side of Lean

The People Side of LeanThe term “Lean” is used in a variety of ways in many companies. However, the basic concept refers to work practices that consider it wasteful to expend resources (time, people or money) for any goal other than the creation of value for the customer , and thus a target for elimination. Lean manufacturing is a management philosophy and a set of tools derived from the Toyota Production System (TPS).

TPS starts with three fundamental philosophies:

  1. Customer first
  2. Respect for humanity
  3. Elimination of waste

The house concept (shown here) is used as a visual for TPS to show that if any part of the structure is unsound, the whole structure will be unstable.

TPSTrue Lean by Toyota means the people doing the work use systematic problem solving to improve the work they do in order to achieve the company’s targets and goals. If the group’s purpose is not aligned with what they’re trying to achieve as a company, it may not be the best use of time and resources. The company’s targets and goals are set by the people at the top, but the company depends on the people doing the work to identify with that goal, by working together using the Lean tools and thinking of ways to drive the company’s success.

Ensure Team Member Involvement

A tool is only a tool. To achieve success it is essential to have people who are willing and able to use the tools. The TPS philosophy of Respect for Humanity means creating an environment of success for the people doing the work. One of the most important concepts is the recognition that employees need to know what is expected of them and that they be allowed to use tools for continuous improvement towards the company’s goals and objectives. Not only does this drive company success, it allows employees to improve the work they do.

It is said that our lives are shortened not by major life changing events, but by the stresses of routine daily frustrations: These are the real culprits. Therefore, it is essential to fix things that do not work, and to make sure they don’t come back by eliminating the root cause. This has a positive impact on people to do good work.

The tools in the system are designed to show either:

  • Normal operating conditions: These meet the standard and achieve the expected results. If a new goal is set, then systematic problem solving methodology is used to allow employees to meet the new standard; or
  • Abnormal operating conditions: Current work practices do not meet expectations so the same problem solving process is used to eliminate the inefficiencies.

New Management Thinking

The traditional Command and Control model is the standard management practice. It is top-down communication with directives, and it is authority oriented. The focus is primarily on reaching targets and the control of resources, people and results.

Creating a positive Lean environment requires focusing on what an employee does today to make things better. The concerns here are with both results and the process of getting those results. There is still top-down direction setting and bottom-up flow of information and means, but this model allows workers to figure out what they need to do. Employees take ownership of solutions, after approval by those at the top. This is a participative style with a circular or spiral image of goal achievement. There are continuous feedback loops and improvements, and while the focus is still on control of resources, it involves development of people to get results.

The Leader’s Role in Lean

For individuals and the company to succeed, leaders must:

1. Understand the Lean role, which is to:

  • model expected behaviors. Problem solving depends on timely problem reporting but that won’t happen if there is a negative response to the reporting of a problem.
  • follow lean methodologies (or trust is broken).
  • hold everyone accountable for lean behaviors and methodologies.

2. Ensure each team member understands:

  • his or her role/responsibility (by level) to perform, think and participate.
  • there are uniform expectations for performance and behaviors. Leaders must teach every team member how he or she adds value and what contribution is expected.

3. Build mutual trust by:

  • creating an environment where team members can work with their trust in the company.
  • ensuring the team members feel they have stable employment; layoff or dismissal is a last resort.
  • ensuring fairness and consistency.
  • ensuring high employee morale.
  • steadily maintaining and improving working conditions with long-term perspective.

Don’t Forget Middle Management

In companies that are just moving into Lean, often the individuals who have the greatest challenge adapting are in middle management. Traditionally their success has been based on results or hitting the numbers. Their new role is focused on the process. Setting them up to succeed requires need-based development and support as the organization moves toward the new behaviors and thinking ways.

Managing Change

There is natural tension in constantly trying to balance expectations and needs, but the over-riding requirement for success is interactive, two-way communication between team members and management. It’s essential that every individual realizes he or she has a role in this and can see the win/win of success for the company and the employee.

Conclusion

Sustaining Lean is a greater challenge than implementing Lean. Organizations begin their journey by implementing Lean tools to improve efficiencies and eliminate waste. They achieve measureable success and then reach a plateau, unable to gain full employee buy-in and unable to change the culture needed to sustain Lean. This is a natural struggle point and a normal phase of the journey.

Advancing beyond the plateau can be achieved when the organization’s people deeply understand the Lean thinking ways, philosophy, behaviors and practices and can answer, “What’s in it for me?” Organizations only achieve long-term, sustainable success when they implement The People Side of Lean.

Pete Gritton is a retired vice president of human resources for Toyota Motor Manufacturing of North America and now works through the University of Kentucky to help organizations transform to a Lean culture. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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