Think Lean

If you want to change how your company works, then change how your people think. According to the creators of a five-day mental boot camp located in the heartland of the automobile business, the first thing to think about is how to get lean.

How do you help doctors, pharmacists, and nurses at a hospital get the right medicine to the right patients? It’s not just a logistics problem; it’s a test of how well — or how poorly — people in different areas divide up a complex task. And it’s one of many mind-expanding case studies for 44 employees of Visteon Corp., one of the world’s leading auto-parts suppliers.


In a weeklong workshop in Novi, Michigan, 25 miles outside of Detroit, employees are discovering a new way to think — by thinking about a different industry. Through this exercise, they realize that the hospital’s problems have parallels to their own business. Before long, teams of employees have come up with a smarter way to move medicine.

Call it lean learning. Rather than indulging in the habit of making systems bigger and more complicated, Visteon employees have been brought to Novi to attend Lean Learning, a five-day boot camp. Attendees are learning to pare back their operations to the essentials. The crucial lesson: In order to refocus your organization, instill innovation, or make a better anything, you have to think lean.

It’s an appealing way to look at things in these times, which are particularly lean (and tumultuous) for the auto industry. Ford ousted maverick CEO Jacques Nasser. General Motors hired former Chrysler executive Bob Lutz to revive the company. And DaimlerChrysler is caught in merger purgatory.

Yet lean thinking, for all its here-and-now implications, has its roots in the days of Henry Ford and was perfected by auto-industry leader Toyota. For decades, Americans traipsed through Toyota’s well-run plants in hopes of learning how to build cars right. Companies in all kinds of industries copied obvious aspects of Toyota’s lean production system. But all that imitation generally failed to remake companies in the Toyota image.

So did the Toyota emulators use the wrong tools? Not quite, argues Dennis Pawley, a former Chrysler executive. Pawley left Chrysler months after its merger with Daimler-Benz in 1998, and in his final years at Chrysler, he tried and failed to drag the company within spitting distance of Toyota. “We had all the tools,” Pawley says. “But what I failed to recognize was that the way people think is far more important than the tools they use.”

Joined by Chrysler refugees Jamie Flinchbaugh and Andy Carlino, Pawley created Lean Learning. He begins class with Harvard Business School cases about work-production issues, including some favorite Toyota examples. But he focuses mostly on reshaping the way people think and learn. Instructors don’t talk much; students are nudged to figure out the answers themselves. And instead of the no-nonsense atmosphere of auto-industry offices, Pawley pipes in baroque music.


For five days, four seemingly simple rules are drummed into students’ heads. The attendees map out the details of job after job, analyzing even a mini-assembly line that makes toy fighter jets.

During the first day of the workshop, students fill the unusual classroom, outfitted with comfy couches and armchairs. But the discussions are anything but comfy. There is skepticism that four rules could change anyone’s business. And the attendees are still haunted by memories of past training courses that sounded great but proved to be useless on the job. “It has always been, ‘Here are some tools, now go find a place to apply them,’ ” says Hank Morrissey, an area manager at Visteon’s Connersville, Indiana plant. “There was never any rationale behind why the tools should work.”

On the second day, Visteon employees map out everything they do on a factory floor onto large whiteboards and take a virtual “waste walk.” They begin to see where they need to make changes — both mental and physical — to their routes to make the factory work better. “It helps you understand where you are, so you can start getting to that ideal state,” explains Lean Learning’s Flinchbaugh.

Before long, even some natural rebels begin to see the benefits of lean thinking’s carefully charted structure. “With lean thinking, you understand that a well-defined process is important,” says Jim Maley, a Visteon industrial-engineering specialist. “A lot of us want to go around the process because it seems easier. But doing things this way shows you what needs to be fixed immediately.”

Learn more about Lean Learning on the Web (

Sidebar: Lean Rules

Does thinking lean require even more rules at work? Well, yes. Dennis Pawley and his colleagues believe that the following four rules set the stage for innovation.


1. Structure every activity. Process can be good for you. Really. Without knowing how you do an activity, you’ll never know how to change it for the better.

2. Connect customers and suppliers. This isn’t just about making a supply chain operate more efficiently. Take, for instance, Toyota’s andon cords. On the surface, they’re meant to uncover problems on the assembly line. But they also connect workers and managers. When a cord is pulled, a manager races to the scene. The worker is the customer waiting for knowledge and help. The manager is the supplier of know-how.

3. Specify and simplify work flow. Through years of work and rework, flows get convoluted and complicated. You buy some companies; you sell off some companies. You grow from 5 to 500 employees. Work flow gets seriously messed up. Think about how to simplify those flows.

4. Experiment at the lowest possible level. The people who do the work should be the ones who improve the work. It’s easy to hand a problem to a task force or to let management have a go. But such fixes prevent the very people who face the problem from being able to fix it.