David Howells, Managing Director of Renault- Nissan Consulting, shares an intimate reflection on the challenges of the early stages of Renault’s lean journey, the progress that has been made since the Renault-Nissan Alliance and the value that ‘sharing the experience’ of that journey has brought to various non-automotive clients over the last decade.

Much is made of the improvement journey of the automotive industry, particularly via lean. One thing is for certain – when I look back over the last 20+ years that I’ve worked in the car industry, much has indeed improved.

A particular joy for me has been sharing that experience with other industries over the last decade or so. Often, when we’re helping others to get the fundamental elements of their lean journey’s right we hear comments like “it must be great to know a good way to do so many things” – a comment for which, of course, the only proper response is “that’s because we’ve learned from getting so many things wrong over the years.”

The journey of our parent, particularly prior to the late 1990s’ alliance with Nissan, is no different. The pride that we feel having helped Renault achieve quality ratings on a par with (and now often ahead of) our German competitors is genuine, but we have accumulated our fair share of scars along the way.

Renault’s ‘joined up’ quality journey started over 20 years ago with Total Quality Management. Like many European volume automotive OEMs, our parent realised that product integrity and reliability were, understandably, moving from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’ for the customer, so the bar had to be raised. The challenge wasn’t a straight-forward one – think ‘state-owned car maker’ in the late 1970s/early ’80s for those of us who can remember that far back and it conjures a picture that is a world away from the Renault and Nissan plants I walk around today. In those days, the concept of TQM was still a ‘leading edge’ that many were not prepared to step over.

The product integrity and reliability challenges 20 years ago were significant enough to get people’s attention, however, so TQM (and later, lean) became the saviour for many people. The problem was that it was mainly deployed tactically, which is good for localised improvement, but when you consider the complexity of a global automotive supply chain the “theory of constraints” instantly comes to mind.

Early results were therefore encouraging at a localised/tactical level, and, like many organisations looking at lean as a ‘silver bullet’, we patted ourselves on the back.

In reality, we had kind of missed the point. Thankfully, we realised that a couple of decades ago, so we’ve had plenty of time to turn things around. You can always be better, but the group’s transformation is certainly a great example of what lean can do when you use it to change an organisation.

It wasn’t like that at the beginning, however, and in the spirit of ‘sharing the experience’ there are a few fundamental things that took us some time to get right.

Back then, lean was used as a localised improvement logic, not enterprise-wide to address the true root causes of issues.

Absolutely, lots of problems were solved using lean. This would often help local teams and operations to achieve their targets, but it wasn’t linked to enabling an enterprise-wide strategy. One of the big “a ha!” moments we had during the early days of the Renault-Nissan Alliance was understanding the importance of policy deployment (hoshin kanri) in improvement.

Simply put, without the ability to understand how what they’re improving is helping to deliver the overall goals of the organisation, people will only ever be able to see the local-level impact of improvement. That’s a bit like letting the rear wheel man of the F1 pit-stop crew only ever see the rear wheel section of the car – they’ll never understand that if they do their bit right but stand in the wrong place to do it they’ll block the fuel man, and the car will stop soon after.

Policy deployment has therefore been a fundamental step in the improvement journey and strategy of the Alliance for over a decade – before even talking about the “what” we ensure people know why we’re looking to improve it from an organisation-wide perspective. I have to say we’re still by no means perfect, but having helped a couple of hundred non-automotive organisations in the UK and beyond with this key first step we’ve definitely made some progress.

Soon after the Alliance was formed in the late 90s we realised that Nissan was fantastic at this step – miles ahead of where Renault had gotten over a decade of efforts. So we adopted Nissan’s ‘MOST’ logic, added a ‘V’ to it for ‘Vision’, and today the Renault-Nissan V-MOST© logic is a key foundation of our policy deployment activity.

And that’s also why policy deployment comes very early on in our 7-Step Lean Transformation Model, just after ‘Engage Stakeholders and Set Direction’.

‘Lean Survival Tip’ number one is therefore “ensure your improvement is linked to your policy/strategy, and that people understand the “why” for any “what” you’re asking them to do.

‘Sharing the experience’ wasn’t in our core vocabulary (these days it’s our corporate strapline)

When I meet someone new and they ask me what I do my stock response is “I work in business improvement for the Renault-Nissan Alliance”. Often their response is “so you make cars then” and they look amazed when I reply “no, Renault and Nissan don’t make cars”. The simple reality is that automotive OEMs don’t make cars. They design them, in the main specify the components to a widely dispersed supply chain then bring all those elements together at a point in time. Why is this important in an article about ‘making lean work’? Because realising this was the second fundamental breakthrough in our lean journey that I’m going to share – yes, we are totally dependent on the ability of our designers to design great cars, our dealers to sell them and all the elements in-between, but without our supply chain we would have nothing to do.

The ability and desire to look end-to-end across our value streams was therefore a second key breakthrough that turned lean from at best a tactical ‘silver bullet’ to an enterprise-wide transformational approach for our parent.

In the early days of TQM we, like most automotive OEMs in the 1980s, told our supply chain what to do. And we were the customer, so they did it.

We applied lean to our production process, but all it did was enabling us to get better at assembling parts that still had varying reliability and integrity.

Thankfully we realised early on that if we work together with the supply chain we get a better solution, so we set off around the world to run several hundred collaborative improvement events four tiers down into the supply chain. And the results were truly inspiring.

Only by truly engaging with our supply chain, which means collaboratively working out how we can consistently build great cars with the people across the supply chain, have we realised the true opportunities that have brought about the step-change in product integrity and reliability seen today (this year Renault scored 92% in the Which? Car 2012 reliability survey, making it one of most reliable manufacturers in the UK for vehicles aged 0-3 years, with only Kia, Lexus and Honda faring better).

‘Lean Survival Tip’ number two is therefore “engage, involve and improve across your end-to-end value stream if you want lean to make a true step-change in your organisation”.

We’ve seen ‘mistake to watch for number three’ in many organisations across the private and public sector.

The classic approach that a lot of organisations adopt when starting their lean journey is to train lots of dedicated improvement people, who are then set-off to solve the problems of the world. In the early days we improved via improvement teams, not by ‘mobilising the masses’.

This again drives local-level tactical improvement, but you never really get the full benefit that comes with an organisation-wide approach to lean.

There’s an old adage about “teach a man to fish…” that pretty-much sums this one up – if you have dedicated people who improve everything for you, how will you ever learn to ‘look through lean eyes’ and continuously improve?

Getting people to sustain an improved process is a world away from true continuous improvement. Only by equipping people with the simple tools like practical problem solving can you really ‘mobilise the masses’ around lean. And that’s when our journey built a critical mass.

Lean survival tip number three is therefore “don’t make improvement the reserve of a chosen few”.

The final ‘scar’ is another often-seen one – we didn’t realise the importance of lean supervisors.

Pages and pages have been written on top team engagement around lean, which is i ndeed a critical step. The thing that we encourage everyone to remember when planning their lean journey, however, is that lean is really about getting the work done in the most efficient, effective and safest way, aligned to what the customer wants.

If we’re going to get people to operate in an efficient, effective, safe and continuously improving way day after day someone needs to constantly ensure they are calibrated towards True North. And that someone, most of the time, is the lean supervisor.

We help dozens of organisations each year with their lean journeys. Often, one of the toughest things to get commitment to is training the supervisors to lead lean. We’ve found the best way to achieve this is to take the people who need to “see the light” to our Sunderland plant and show them how a lean supervisor operates. Because without seeing the value in this key role you will never really make the breakthrough from tactical to strategic lean.

In our lives, the supervisor is king. Their job is to lead their team to make the work happen, and to achieve the quality, cost, delivery, people, safety and continuous improvement goals for their part of the process. They also liaise closely with their counterparts up and down stream, so we can avoid localised improvement causing a constraint elsewhere in the process.

They also get a massive amount of development – something that is counter-intuitive in classic business environments. Often, when working with non-lean organisations, we see lots of employee development going to the ‘less experienced’ people lower down the organisation (or higher up on the inverted triangle). Middle managers seem to get some development, and the more senior you get the less investment the organisation seems to make.

But unless someone’s hand is on the rudder, the ship will never stay on True North. And down at the gemba where the work happens, that’s the job of the supervisor.

So we train and coach our supervisors to be lean supervisors – the engine room of sustainment and continuous improvement.

‘Scar to avoid’ number four is therefore “don’t undervalue the role of your supervisors – invest in their, and your, future.”

So there you have it – 20 years of deploying lean distilled down into four pitfalls to avoid:

  • Don’t treat lean as a tactical tool – it is so much more than that;
  • Don’t ask for a “what” without a “why” that is aligned to your strategic intent – policy deployment comes before appropriate improvement;
  • Don’t make improvement the preserve of the few – mobilise the masses;
  • Don’t under invest in your supervisors – they keep the doers on a True North heading.

As I’m sure you’ll read in other articles in this issue, avoiding the pitfalls of lean implementation is often common sense. Remembering that often-used picture of a PDCA circle on a slope with a wedge behind it is also a gr eat leveller – continuous improvement means it gets better and better, not that it slips back and needs to be re-done.

Don’t get me wrong, we have many other lean tools and approaches in our toolkit beyond the key pitfalls I’ve outlined above. And whilst we’ve made great progress, we’re still by no means perfect. Who ever is?

These days I’m lucky enough to get lots of calls from people who want us to help them avoid the scars we’ve got from our 20+ year lean journey, hence the ‘sharing the experience’ strapline.

We often start talking about how they’re struggling to sustain 5S, but after a while the conversation always seems to get around to the ‘cornerstones’ of success I’ve mentioned above.

One thing that is common when you consider them is that they are all common sense. The biggest challenge we face as lean practitioners, however, is making that ‘common sense’ everyday practice.