Machine Operator running pilots - Impruver

Want a sure-fire recipe for failure in Lean or Continuous Improvement, start by piloting a tool or process. Yea, that’s right – I said it. Pilots in Continuous Improvement are bogus. In fact, even a “successful” pilot can do more harm than good in the long run. Lean tools are designed to expose opportunities for improvement and build capability / skills. A pilot is to show that an idea generates the desired business result. Sure you can build skills during a pilot but the implication or intent is rarely to build skills but to show immediate benefits to the business. And if the immediate benefit is not realized, then the pilot is regarded a failure. Learning and skills development is rarely a consideration for success.

What is a Lean Pilot?

Just to make sure I’m not rubbing my friends in the aviation community the wrong way, whom I happen to respect and appreciate dearly (particularly before and during a flight), let me clarify what a pilot is in this context. A pilot is an event where a group of people work together to try something new in a controlled environment to see if it works before scaling it to other areas. This could take place on a production line, processing area, or entire plant even. The implication is that the new process or idea contains some element of risk and needs to be carefully managed to ensure sustainment of key processes. You might be thinking this sounds like the responsible thing to do. Read on to see how this approach could be more dangerous than you realize.

The Problem with Lean Pilots

If you want to send a clear signal to everyone involved that you’re not committed to the success of an idea, then call it a pilot. I always chuckle when I hear, we’re going to pilot 5S on one line in the plant. It makes me imagine a scenario where the 5S experience is a complete disaster and leadership decides that it’s never going to try 5S again. When the term pilot is used, it often means something will be tried and the results will be assessed for effectiveness. The underlying assumption is that very little people capability is needed to be developed in order to make it work. This is also why results generated during kaizen events rarely sustain.

At the end of the pilot, which is usually executed over a relatively short window of time, there is an evaluation of success or failure. Success in Lean requires the development of talent, which happens over time. Going into a Lean implementation with such a binary approach ignores the need for people to learn and develop the skills for achieving and sustaining success. On the same note, you can imagine the outcome for people entering a marriage with the mindset that it’s just a pilot. Yea, not a recipe for sustainment. For both marriages and Lean initiatives, people have to learn the skills needed to make it work, which most likely won’t happen during a pilot. I guess if we look at the bright side, you’ve got a 50% chance of success with marriage while only 30% of Lean implementations succeed. Fortunately, with the right coaching, the odds of success can be greatly enhanced for both.

The Problem with Successful Lean Pilots

Unfortunately, successful pilots do even more damage than failed ones. They give a false impression that results are not dependent on the skills or will of the people doing the work everyday. Take my previous 5S example. Lets say a team completes a 5S project in 4 weeks and quickly sees a bump in productivity, the area is more clean and organized, and the work is easier to do. Can you say that the pilot was successful? On the surface, it would appear so. However, the immediate results are a bit misleading. The whole purpose of 5S as well as many other lean tools is not necessarily to show rapid gains, but to expose opportunities for people development. In other words, implementing lean tools is not the end of the engagement, it’s just the beginning of your skills development journey. The real gains come from effectively correcting unproductive behaviors that are exposed by the lean tool or method. In a vast majority of cases, failure to sustain is a result of under-developed people and managers.

So How Are You Supposed to Facilitate Improvement?

First the people, then the process, then the results. Just remember that people use processes to get results. You have to tackle each in that order. People need a ton of time and support to build the skills needed to develop their processes to achieve and sustain outstanding results. You can equip them with incredible technology and machines, but just like with anything else, those things need to be cared for in a way that optimizes performance and stretches out their useful life. The people in the best position to do this effectively are the ones who use them to do their jobs everyday. If these people don’t have the skills, even the most brilliantly designed processes become dysfunctional over time. The true test of sustainment skills is to see what happens when the operator receives the first sign of deviation from optimal operation. Do they start to investigate or just ignore so as to meet the day’s production demand? When a new process is implemented, do they take the time to learn it thoroughly, take it apart, put it back together, break it, fix it, improve it, etc –  or just go through the motions to get the immediate job done?

So before calling your next Lean engagement a pilot, think again. Just say you’re going to make some changes that should help give us more insight into our opportunities for improvement. Then focus on building the capability to improve. Consider that going deep on building capability is more important than skimming the surface and showing a quick and unsustainable benefit to the business.

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