Magic Beans

Dan Riley
14 min readFeb 1, 2021

Herewith, an excerpt from Look Before You Lean: How a Lean Transformation Goes Bad…A Cautionary Tale

Post-it Notes would have streamlined so much for the Dawn of Man

Let it not be said that WTF came to the grand party WE insisted on throwing for it empty-handed. Its bag was chock full of beans that, if not exactly magic, would create for our executives at least the illusion that one day a giant beanstalk would sprout in our parking lot and rise upward into the sky where a pot of corporate gold would be waiting — ours for the taking.

Speaking of that parking lot, the first visible sign to staff that WTF was coming was when we received notice that there would no longer be executive parking spaces…that, in the democratizing spirit of Lean, all parking spots would be equal. This fanfare for the common man was echoed when the first RIEs began to roll out, and we were told that a key feature of them would be that “titles are left at the door.” Inside the RIE all men and women, like parking spots, would be created equal.

In both instances, the implied nobility was undeniable. But as I’ve said before, much put forth by WTF did not hold up well to closer scrutiny. The first-come, first-serve parking directive struck many employees as trivial. The assigned executive spaces opened up by the new policy did not positively impact enough spaces or distance to make it at all recognizable as a benefit to employees. Nor were employees in any measurable number begrudging executives who had earned their reserved spots through their positions and needed those spots due to their often busy travel schedules.

Employees instinctively understand their place, even those employees who believe they deserve a higher place…or don’t like the people in higher places. If you’re going to try to undo centuries of employee conditioning to obey the hierarchy, at least put some effort into it. Perhaps it would have been useful to devote some pre-RIE time to exploring what “leaving titles at the door” means in practical terms. What fears would both employees and managers feel operating in such an environment? What would it take for management to prove that it was really willing and able to operate in such an environment without consequences for the employee? And what about this new, alien and intimidating title that had just been introduced to us — sensei? Does that title get left at the door? Can the sensei’sauthority be challenged, as well?

The very idea that you might break down this fundamental aspect of corporate culture with a mere announcement of “Please leave titles at the door” was naïve at best and willfully deceptive at worst. Because over time I came to believe the worst of WTF, I’m inclined to believe that deception was the intent…and deception not just aimed at staff to make them believe that for the hours spent in RIEs their bosses were really their peers, but deception aimed at the executives as well, to keep them humbled in the presence not of their staff, but the sensei.

If these democratizing gestures had been reinforced and expanded through the course of our Lean transformation, I may very well have come to a more favorable conclusion about WTF’s intent. But quite the opposite happened as WTF increasingly warned against dissenting voices — “change the people or change the people” entered our company lexicon for the first time — and the democratic trappings proved to be a sham.

By the second year of our Lean transformation, “trust the process” had replaced “change is hard” as the all-purpose conversation stopper and answer to any difficult question. The “process” seemingly was a shape-shifting creature of myriad appendages and faculties. Its constant movement and metamorphoses made it difficult enough to track let alone trust.

Among them were the RIEs of mostly 5-days’ duration with detailed plans for each day, Thursdays being the most ambitious:

  • Observe and document new conditions
  • Brainstorm solutions to problems identified on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday
  • Implement solutions
  • List actions to be taken within 30 days of RIE
  • Define system to sustain the changes implemented
  • Verify changes to be made to the process
  • Prepare current and future skits and slide presentation for Friday report out

Then there was A3 thinking, the process of getting all your thinking down on one piece of metric-sized paper called an A3, similar to an 11” x 17” piece of paper (which raises the question for all those let’s go Japanese Leaniacs out there, how’s the metric system translating to the USA?). The A3 is divided into 9 steps:

  • State the problem
  • Measure the initial state
  • Set the target state
  • Find the root cause
  • Develop a solution
  • Test the hypothesis
  • Create the plan
  • Track the benefits
  • Share the knowledge

The A3, we were told, should capture the logic of solving a problem on a single sheet and be able to stand on its own without explanation. Nowhere in the known universe has so much thinking been contained on one piece of paper since the death of Einstein.

Then early in year two the X-Matrix appeared. Our WE Lean leadership spent a week in an RIE with a sensei learning its seeming lightsaber-like powers. When our leaders emerged for their report out, they could tell us how hard the X-Matrix had been to master and how wonderful it was once you did, but they could not explain it to staff and admitted as much. Also, they couldn’t adequately demonstrate its usefulness to us…or in Lean terminology: WIIFM (what’s in it for me).

After X-Matrix came POP (and SNAP and CRACKLE and PRESTO and SHAZAAM, or some such words all designed to conjure up the illusion of speed and alacrity). In between, Standard of Work reared its ugly little head. This is what WTF prescribed as “typical standard work elements:”

  • Daily track area managers’ standard work
  • Daily track takt attainment of all value streams
  • Daily gemba walk with operations managers
  • Daily 6S audit — one area per day, randomly & in rotation — follow-up on issues raised in last audit
  • Daily monitor standard of work of all team members — area manager, team leader, lead, operator — randomly and in rotation
  • Weekly gemba walk with multiple team leaders
  • Weekly assess metrics for MDI

Oh, yes, almost forgot: MDI — Metric for Daily Improvement. Somewhere along the line if you had been cursed with a management position you would have created an MDI board with your daily improvement metrics spelled out in particulate detail.

And WTF would not tolerate slackers, warning our top people:

  • Leaders at the top must be disciplined in their dedication to the lean process to make it work
  • Leaders below the top level must be equally disciplined
  • Leaders who disregard abnormal situations make them normal
  • Leaders who fail in their dedication will fail to create an effective lean culture
  • Leaders must demand standard work from all staff without exception
  • Leaders must set the standard

Well, one person’s discipline is another person’s anality. I’m rather happy to report that in a year-and-a-half I never saw one of our leaders adhere to that standard of work…not even come close. I really do look upon this as a good thing. The atmosphere WTF managed to create at our company was oppressive enough without having top executives wander through the work areas on a regular basis checking to see how well we were all doing at sorting, straightening and scrubbing our workstations. And even if our top people didn’t have the good sense to ignore most of the anal retentive aspects of the Lean process, the nonstop carousel of RIEs they were required to attend made it impossible to perform their standard of work to WTF’s specifications.

I don’t want to come off as some kind of troglodyte here. I’m all for change that makes life and work better. For years I started my writing projects…or any complex project…with a legal pad. I’d outline what I wanted to write about or make columns for pros and cons and deadlines on whatever other project I was about to undertake. I also started each and every day with a Post-it of my “things to do.” But then along came writers’ software to help with my outlines; “thinking” software to help with brainstorming, organizing, and charting; and a smartphone to replace my need for Post-it notes with both writing and vocal functionality. Lean’s affinity for Post-its and wall charts is quaint at best, but at worst it is that highest of Lean crimes: wasteful. For months on end we watched as long strips of butcher paper lined our company walls to become populated with different color Post-its with hand scribbled ideas, directions, insights, and answers to questions no one but WTF ever thought to ask…or needed to ask. The strips would later be photographed and carefully moved room to room to be transcribed for reports and archived, leaving those of us working in the Information Age rather than the Industrial Age to wonder: Hasn’t anybody here heard of digitizing? Web connecting? Mobile devices?

The reliance on Post-its and handmade charts seems more a matter of Lean branding than Lean efficiency. These are artifacts passed on from Lean’s roots in factory settings where computerized tools were nonexistent. Lean practitioners, or at least WTF, appear reluctant to modernize their practices for fear of losing their Lean identity even as they attempt to modernize their portfolios with more Information Age clients.

But this isn’t just a matter of style. In fact there are more serious issues of substance. On the matter of A3 thinking, for instance, I would argue that the A3 is much more a tool for organizing thinking than thinking itself. It really isn’t much different than a simple pluses and minuses sheet, except it asks for more product or detail from your thinking. For getting at the actual thinking process, it is immaterial.

We are on the new frontier of neuroscience. This discipline abounds with data as to how we think — or, as they say, what makes us tick. There is enough information out there in the early stages of neuroscience to tell us how certain people are likely to fill out an A3, which people are likely to make the most use of an A3, which the least likely.

Daniel Kahneman breaks our thinking process down into two types — fast and slow. Fast is what psychologists call System 1; slow is what they call System 2. Writes Kahneman:

“When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero…effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main source of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.”

I am all for that System 2 construction of thoughts into orderly steps. And I truly believe that is a genuine plus of what its proponents like to call Lean thinking. And I’m happy to report that I saw an example of this process in practice when I was on that Lean tour I mentioned earlier. At one of the companies on the tour, we were shown their proprietary problem-solving matrix, which they used to get at the root cause of a bottleneck in accounts receivable. On completion, the matrix revealed that the conventional wisdom (product of System 1) that held that the company’s credit department was the source of the bottleneck was wrong. The credit department played a minor role compared to two other departments, which were largely responsible for the bottleneck. And in the best of Lean fashion, these results led to fixing the problem, rather than fixing blame.

In fairness, through its efforts WTF actually had a few qualitative breakthroughs like this at WE. Unfortunately these quality wins were buried under an avalanche of quantitative data. Rather than taking the few, small victories and leveraging them throughout the company in a way designed to show employees what was in it for them, WTF chose to trumpet its vast collection of numbers…how much staff put through how many RIEs in how little time; how many tons of material discarded during 6S; how many new tools introduced to company leadership. This is because WTF wasn’t so much interested in what was in it for us, the employees, but rather what was in it for them as a major proponent of enterprise-wide transformations. Small wins suited neither their corporate strategy nor their corporate ego.

From the factory floor, watching our management in a state of continuous discombobulation was most damaging to our entire Lean transformation. Our leaders didn’t so much get a tool chest opened up to them as they had it dumped on their heads. One top-level person — and one of our company’s savviest — confided to me one day that even though he (or she) had participated in numerous RIEs and had achieved WTF’s proprietary second level of Lean expertise, she (or he) still couldn’t say with any certainty what Lean was.

Such refreshing bits of skepticism, however, were counteracted by others in management positions who were possessed of an unseemly degree of certainty about where the company was going and what their role was in getting it there. The new manager of my department was one such booster. She was installed because upper management believed she had an eye and appetite for enforcing the Lean ideal of visual management, which was all about being able to manage by scanning the work area and all that it entailed — were the workers in their places, were tools at the ready, were daily maintenance boards visible and current, were any abnormalities on the horizon (“race to red”). The Night’s Watch standing lookout for invasions of Others in Game of Thrones had a less daunting task. But our new manager had a zest for the job and practiced her vigilance from her desk in the far corner of the department.

After an intensive week learning about standard of work as a key component of visual management, she announced that the entire department would go on what she termed were standard company hours, 8–5, five days a week. Not to quibble, but the company had never held to any standard work hours. There was a passing reference to 8–5 in the company handbook, but that was pretty much neutralized by a directive that each department would set its hours according to its needs. In fact, the needs of the department that was the company’s main income generator required work hours from 7–4. Our department was a hot bed of flex scheduling. Some of us arrived as early as 6 a.m.; some as late as 10 a.m. Some worked four-day weeks with Mondays off; some four-day weeks with Fridays off. Some schedules were due to the need to care for children; some in order to care for elderly parents; some just because some folks preferred to put in long 4-day weeks in order to have long 3-day weekends. It was all very employee-friendly…and had been for all the years I was employed there.

I realize how this may all seem disturbing to an outsider, especially an outsider peddling something called visual management, but it pretty much worked for a long time. Our department met most deadlines and produced high quality work, which drew glowing praise from upper management and outsiders. We also had our fair share of Staff of the Year award winners, among them those who had some of the most unorthodox schedules.

Historically, this change in our hours came down shortly after Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced a ban on telecommuting at her company. I don’t think WTF needed such encouragement to push standard work hours at WE. It was already baked into its agenda. But the Yahoo news, like the change in our hours, I believe, is indicative of how companies capitalize on difficult economic times to hammer employees into shape. It’s couched in terms of doing what’s best for the customer, but stripped of the rhetoric it’s just old style management muscle flexing to show the workers who’s boss.

Now, what I’m about to describe happened immediately after an RIE aimed specifically at our department where what is called a Gap Analysis revealed that the department was suffering from, among other things, “unsuccessful visual management,” “uneven work distribution,” and “suboptimal internal organization.” For each of those gaps, the high-priced team gathered in the RIE “did a root cause analysis by asking Why five times.” They did A-3s, a calendar, drew up a completion plan — the sensei even pulled a few brand new tricks out of the WTF bag — “PICK” charts and the QFD tool (Quality Functional Deployment). Seal Team 6 should be so well prepared.

Yet, with all that and under the regime of standard work, within the purview of visual management (and with my own executive-approved project suggestions for the company idling somewhere in somebody’s queue), I commenced serious work on this book. At my workstation. In plain-sight. All during the newly imposed standard work hours. With WTF placing mind-numbing emphasis on tracking every working hour, with charts galore tracking every employee with a dizzying array of arrows and stars and bars, with a pervasive and oppressive company push to get everyone on the Lean transformation bus, I sat undisturbed documenting much of what was going wrong with the process.

According to the standard of work elements detailed for each of our leaders up the chain of command, in the time I spent writing this book I should have been visited dozens of times to be asked what I was working on…how I was progressing…was I having any problems. Just one gemba walk should have easily raised five “why” questions. Like, why was I busily working on my personal iPad while my company iMac with its 16-inch monitor sat on my desk mostly idle for three months? Why did the vaunted Lean process allow me to not only fall through the cracks but virtually disappear from sight? Why did someone decide that Lean standards would be further advanced by leaving me with nothing to do rather than putting me to work on approved projects with long-term benefits to the company? Why did someone decide that it would be a good idea to have one of WE’s most vocal critics of the Lean transformation sit without assigned work for more than 500 hours? Why, after intensive visual management and standard of work training, did our department management return to our “factory floor” so utterly blind or oblivious to the problem it was creating?

Ironically, in the three months I spent working on this book, only one person in a management position came to look over my shoulder. He looked at my iMac and said, “You can’t be reading that on company time.” It was Scotty, our former department director and a man inclined to trust his staff without looking over shoulders. In my 10 years of working for the man, he had never once come to question my work (and, I should add, I had never once failed to deliver on any assignment he gave me). This history made an embarrassing pass between us at that moment of his calling me on my activity. I replied, “Scotty, this is the Lean material they’ve uploaded on our intranet and asked us to read. I can’t very well read it at home.”

His sheepishness gave way to bemusement. He rolled his eyes, shook his head, and walked away muttering, “This process is making fools of us all.”

In the period I spent writing this book on company time, I had a total of 48 assigned hours of work and a grand total of 525 hours of unassigned work! I had become the worst of WTF’s “8 Wastes” — I had become “unused human talent.” As I said earlier, however, some people know how to make the most of waste…and I, fortunately, am one of them.

Occasionally I would look up from the writing of my book to peer into the adjoining meeting room (obeya!) where yet another WTF sensei would unveil yet another WTF chart that promised to sprout a beanstalk to the heavens for WE. Our managers and directors and cell leaders and such would gather around it in awe, reaching out to touch it and chattering deliriously among themselves, resembling nothing less, I’m sad to say, than the hairy humanoids in 2001: A Space Odyssey when they found themselves in the presence of that big, black, quite baffling monolith.



Dan Riley

From the obit desk at the Hartford Courant to the copy desk at Larry Flynt publications to the stage at Long Beach Playhouse to books, blogs & beyond.