John Bicheno reviews Art Byrne’s The Lean Turnaround, McGraw Hill, 2013

Superb. Essential. But…

Art Byrne is one of the great figures in the world of lean being the one-time CEO of Wiremold, featured in the book “Lean Thinking”. He subsequently moved onto numerous other organisations, achieving spectacular results. Art and friend George Koenigsaecker are possibly the only “c” level executives to have written books on lean implementation. That fact alone would warrant the purchase of this book.

Forget corporate strategy, says Art. Lean IS the strategy. It is the most powerful weapon to achieve growth. Productivity is wealth and security for all stakeholders.

Art’s ‘take’ on lean leadership is refreshing. Instead of the usual range of ‘motherhood and apple pie’ characteristics (such as vision, communication, empathy, competence, and the like), Art focuses on features such as:

  • Requiring ALL directors to participate in kaizens.
  • Reorganising into value streams and away from silos or departments.
  • Managing by process – at the gemba – and not by the numbers – in the office.
  • Leader standard work, combined with policy deployment.
  • Intolerance for inventory – that simply must be reduced over time.
  • CEO participation in training.
  • Devising bonus schemes that everyone can share in.

…if you don’t do these, you can forget lean! Such actions take courage, and are certainly not commonly found. They are not cherry picks. All are necessary to create flow and reduce lead time.

Along the route, Art takes several side swipes: six sigma (an unfortunate diversion), corporate HR (just does not get it), uncovering the rocks by inventory reduction (will not work), and accounting practices driven by unit cost and variances (reinforces specialist silo thinking), and overpaid consultants.

Art, along with George K, is a huge fan of kaizen events that, says he, should be done again and again each time exposing more waste. You don’t ‘get it’ unless you learn this by doing.

But, there is danger here. I felt the impression was being created that it is all so easy; no horses for courses. Is takt time always applicable? What about resources that must be shared between value streams? Are all value steams end-to-end? Is one piece flow always possible? (what about process industry?) Are kaizen events the main, or only, improvement mechanism? (what happens between events?). Of course, the book is not a toolbox and to explain these may well detract from the central message of what a lean leader needs to do.

Yet, one cannot argue against the spectacular results. Art is the real deal. He is that rare commodity that combines unbounded optimism and belief with the experience of having done it, not once but several times.