The tenor of what “lean” is about is shifting, at least in some places, toward the line leader as improver, teacher and coach. Successfully adopting that role requires a qualification that I wish I saw more of as I work with industrial clients – curiosity.

To succeed in this role, a supervisor must be intently curious about, not only the minute-by-minute performance, but what things are affecting it, or could affect it.

Even if he is just walking by, his eyes must be checking – is there excess inventory piling up? Are all of the standard WIP spots filled? Is anyone struggling with the job? Are the carts in the right places? Pressures and temperatures OK? Kanbans circulating correctly? Workers all wearing PPE? Safety glasses? Ear plugs? Does the fork truck driver have his seatbelt fastened?

Though there should also be deliberate checks as part of his standard work, a leader needs to be intently curious about what is happening all of the time.

To improve things requires even more curiosity. “What obstacles do you think are now keeping you from reaching the target?” is not a question that should be answered casually. Rather, the preparation to answer it properly requires careful study – being curious – about what operational conditions must be changed to reach the target.

Sadly, though, my experience is that true curiosity is a pretty rare commodity. A plant manager that can spout off a barrage of facts and figures about how things have to be, but is surprised every time the math doesn’t reflect his view of reality doesn’t impress me much.

Niwa-sensai said once (probably many times) “A visual control that doesn’t trigger action is just a decoration.”

You have to be curious about what those visual controls are telling you. What good is a gage if it is supposed to read between 4 and 6, but drops to 0 and nobody notices?

That supervisor walking through the area needs to be visually sweeping those gages, looking for leaks, anything unusual or abnormal, and taking action.

“How did that stain get here?” Run the trap line. The process, as designed, shouldn’t let anything leak. Why did it? What is really happening?

All we practitioners can do is patiently, again and again, walk the line with them, ask what they see, stand in the chalk circle with them, and do our best to teach them to see what we do.

Show them the system, show them the future consequences of letting this little thing slide – how second shift is going to be brought to their knees because the work isn’t being processed according to the FIFO rules.

I suspect, though, that at least a few leaders get promoted and somehow believe they reach a level where they are exempt from checking and teaching. That’s someone else’s job.

But if not them, who? And how do they know it is getting done?

5 Replies to “Curiosity”

  1. As always, very well put. Curiosity is critically important.

    I will disagree on one point, though. I don’t believe that “at least a few leaders get promoted and somehow believe they reach a level where they are exempt from checking and teaching.”

    I believe the long tradition of command and control leadership has resulted in the vast majority behaving as though they are exempt from checking and teaching.

  2. When I was young I visited NYC for the first time and observed a man lying on the sidewalk and people stepping around him. He wasn’t “dead” but I’ve since related this experience to what I call stepping over “dead” bodies in the factory. I think there is a bit of a crowd psychology at work in both cases. “No one else seems to care about this so I guess I don’t either.” and there is a bit of negative reinforcement: “if I deal with this I will have more work to do and the work that is expected of me will not get done.” Imagine if there was a pool of water forming under your sink at home. In that case the negative consequences of inaction fall directly on you (of course the kids may just step over that dead body too.) I think that the more managers can create the mentality that “this is our house.” or “this is our work bay.” and the more cross accountability there is among members of the team maintaining that area, the more likely we are to get curious inquiries into something that isn’t right. Obviously management has to show that they care about it and are willing to expend energy to fix it. If Dad doesn’t care about the puddle on the floor why should the kids?

  3. Mark…
    I am huge fan of your blogs. I have learnt a lot and continue to apply the same in my job as a plant manager. We have been able to bring a huge turnaround in the plant from safety, quality, delivery point of view in a year. Cost and cash as always have followed in the right direction as started engaging in improving safety…by way of better workplace and culture.
    We followed the approach of kaizen events…it has helped the team to get familiar with lot of the lean tools. I see this as stepping stone to create a problem solving culture…where everyone is thinking and acting to improve his work…from safety, quality and delivery(cycle time/lead time). Cost and cash(inventory) will
    follow it…
    Thanks for being a virtual sensei….

  4. Was reading another of your post, when came across this one. It was both appropriate and timely; as I am part of a large manufacturing change, where we are all learning that everyone needs to keep curiosity at the forefront of improving and seeing the possibility of what can be.

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