Learning from Lean Sensei

As a tool to benchmark against the best, the Lean Sensei from AME is a simple way to start asking some tricky questions. Manufacturers’ Monthly finds out.

In a global and diverse sector such as manufacturing, it can be hard for each individual business to know where they stand.

The Lean Sensei tool, developed by the US branch of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME), provides an individualised assessment process for manufacturers to see where they are in relation to the competition.

Glenn Seaby, co-founder, lean coach and facilitator of training and consulting business Efficiency Works, and past Queensland president of AME, has drawn on the tool when guiding some of his clients on their own continuous improvement journey.

“For some of my clients, it’s raised their awareness and for others it’s a tool for them to improve,” he said.

The tool was initially developed in the US to prepare companies that seek to compete for the AME Excellence Award, which recognises those businesses that operate at exceptional levels of performance. In Australia, those not competing for the award can still set themselves against the best in the business.

“It’ll allow a gap analysis between where you are and what you have to do,” said Seaby.

“Some people like the idea of an award to aim for, but other people just like it as a tool to aid their own improvements.”

When working with manufacturing businesses in Australia, Seaby sees many operating in their own fields, without an awareness of how advanced other businesses around the globe are performing. With manufacturing supply chains criss-crossing the globe, competition is not only interstate, but international.

“Sometimes people think they are going quite well, because when they compare themselves to others locally within the industry, they’re going okay, but we’re competing on a global basis. While you might be going well compared to a company from another state, sometimes we have a distorted view of how you are going on a world stage.”

Utilising the Lean Sensei tool, whether via its mobile application or Excel spreadsheet version, means getting together a small group of key staff members to give letter grades to all aspects of a business’s operations. Although subjective, the tool requires proof of each grading to ensure that whatever grade, whether A or F, is based on evidence.

While an important part of the process, according to Seaby, the grade is just the first step in the Sensei process.

“As with all evaluation tools, the grade is secondary. It’s the discussion about the grade that is the more useful thing,” he said.

While the temptation to set the grades as bars to reach can be there, Seaby warns those who would seek to use the tool to return to the purpose of the tool, which is to implement tools and resources.

“My major caution would be, when I talk to senior managers about this, is, ‘Don’t get obsessed with the score.’

A mistake is where companies set all their managers a target to get from score A to score B. The score is a nice by-product of the work that you’ve done and tools like this are a great way to ask the right questions and have the right discussions,” said Seaby.

Focussing on the outcome, rather than an element of the process, has lead Seaby to see the tool used in situations where companies were unwilling or reticent to implement Lean principles.

“I had a senior manager who had come from another business, he had a look at the culture and the performance inside the new company and thought that there was quite a lot to do, but they were in denial or blissful ignorance. He used Lean Sensei as tool about what could be done. There was a lot of opportunity and a lot of room for them to drive improvement. It was used as an inspirational tool to establish the difference between what the best companies in the world are doing and what they are doing.”

While the tool will suggest a range of options once the scores are inputted, it avoids suggesting a single solution for each situation. This encourages companies to
ask themselves what is the most appropriate in their unique situation.

“It says, ‘here are some options’ and the company has got to make a decision about which one of those is going to be useful for them to implement. So, they, or their guide, then pulls the right tool out of the toolbox to fix the problem. It’s not prescriptive,” said Seaby.

While these are essential steps with the Lean Sensei tool, a major test comes after a company has done the first round of implementation. In Seaby’s experience, this can be the highest hurdle to leap over.

“Companies like the initial assessment, but it takes a fair bit of focus to make sure they come back and reassess. But as they learn more, and start to understand more about their business, you can go back and some things that they might have been really convinced of, when they have more information and a bit more understanding, they’re not as convinced of.

“Sometimes they can do some work and then realise it’s only really getting to the point where they thought they were already. As you get a better understanding of what the Lean Sensei is really asking, then sometimes you realise we really have to do more work here. We’ve got clients to the point where they’ve used it as a thing to say, ‘This is where we’re at, this is what we need to do,’ and they’ve started on the journey.”

Fundamentally, however, Seaby sees the tool as only as useful as the questions that it can prompt businesses to ask.

“The people who wrote the tool don’t say ‘Do this,’ they’re really saying the Lean Sensei offers some questions, now what are you going to do about it. Then it’s up to the company, in conjunction with their coach, to answer it.”