Chubby Business – My Life as a Lean Fat Cat

imageLike a cat I’ve lived multiple “lean” lives since first encountering the philosophy in 1997. For reference I’ll list and number these incarnations  in chronological order.

1. English instructor, private English academy, Tokyo Japan

2. Interpreter for Japanese automotive, US

3. Contract interpreter for a Japanese lean consulting firm, US

4. Kaizen/training manager for American automotive , US

5. Continuous Improvement Analyst for a Fortune 500 company, US

My first job as an English instructor would turn out to be the leanest job I’d ever have and I’m not even sure the private academy was even subscribing to the methodology.  It was my impression at the time that they were just “tight.” Every lesson contained 8 steps introduced in the same order and the accompanying text was just a page.  Our classrooms were transparent; literally made of Plexiglas!  We had no props and were given just a sheet or two of scrap paper which we quartered and used to write out the grammar patterns were were going to practice.  TTT, or teacher talk time, was monitored as our students were to be practicing their skills not us!   All of this drove instructor creativity that was applied to the ice breaker and role play steps.

Before I began lean job 2,  I was asked by the V.P. to study quality systems and lean in the Japanese language.  Because I had taught English in such an efficient environment . . .AND I had been a Japanese wife from the ages of 18 to 30 (a lifestyle that naturally involves ritualistic processes), lean made perfect sense.  It came natural to me.  When Japanese engineers took me to the production lines I participated in the events as more than an interpreter.  We all got our hands dirty.  Our motto was “no spend.”

Number 3, a temporary gig to teach others how to be lean, was of course efficient work– the teaching was “lean in itself.”  Training sessions and transformations took one week and the production changes were immediately effective in reducing cost and making the company more competitive.  There was huge buy-in from the workforce.

Americans were eager to learn lean and kaizen when I transitioned back to my American life in 2001 . . .just ahead of the recession I was able to impart the philosophy to a plastics component supplier.  Our training before any kaizen event was 30 minutes per day for 2.5 weeks and was held three separate times a day so as to make sure not to disrupt production.  We provided efficiently excellent lean learning.  Our simulation was a “laminated card factory” which produced wallet-sized reminders of our teaching points for participants to keep. Through numerous production line “flips” the mindset of the entire workforce changed and as a result the company survived one of the worst economic downturns.

THEN, I met Fat Cat whom I affectionately refer to as “Chubby.”  There was no real concern over spending (at least in comparison with “no spend”Japanese companies) and no lean (WHAT???).  Six Sigma was considered far superior to lean and I was given the stink eye for even talking about the knowledge I’d gained from my mentors.  Standard work was viewed as something that could potentially add value to manufacturing but it could never be applied in an office environment and would absolutely never work in customer service. And as for exposing problems, transparency, and making work visible? That talk belonged to the devil!

Inside Chubby, I practically lost my mind as I began to acquiesce to the “hair on fire” knee jerk methods employed by everyone around me.  Then, just as I finished Fat Cat’s official brand of Six Sigma and became a “black belt,” the word “lean” began to appear.  Someone had actually convinced a member of upper management that lean was good.  I was excited!

So I went to the official “Lean” training which was slated for a week at our swanky corporate training center.  Most of the attendees lived within 30 minutes of the lodge and could have easily gone home at the end of the day, but we were required to spend the night.  This pleased most participants as it meant they would be pampered with gourmet meals, fattening snacks, AND get a break from their day jobs.  WHOO HOO!

The first flaw of the training was that it  never started on time.  In fact time didn’t even seem to matter.  There were ridiculously long breaks, and there were individual and group assignments; many of which we completed in half the time required.  There were multiple layers of instructors who milled about waiting for their turn to present.  The simulation required a couple of hours of set up an tear down time.  This was appalling to me me, but in order to help fix the situation, to gain influence with the gentlemen who brought lean to Fat Cat (Chubby I mean), I decided it was best to join the  “inner circle” and become a lean instructor once more.

To become “certified” to teach lean, I had to attend the same class I had just completed; that is I had to observe the lean consulting firm who was selling us the participant materials (at $250 a pop) and the simulation kits (packaged “Lego”-like sets purchased for around 10k each).  This was another week away from my job plus traveling expenses. During that week the only thing I learned was that the Japanese consulting firm I had contracted with a dozen years earlier (#3) had influenced two Americans to go into business for themselves and that there was a lot of money to be made in training lean as they sold everything from cheesy logo stopwatches and pens to their own books.  These entrepreneurs had taken lean learning to the next level!

All of this was too much and ultimately it was not for me. As I realized Fat Cat’s “Lean Club” was pretty much against changing anything about the training,  I dropped out (well I was actually pushed out for refusing to follow the wordy teaching scripts.)   Alas.  But despite the fact that I was no longer an official trainer, a supporter of mine who knew my background ensured I was given a “Continuous Improvement” title.  A large custom “shingle” costing only $150 was hung above my head letting everyone know I was worthy of being a lean coach.  No lie.

The transformation of Chubby has been very slow and every year I manage to get a fat raise and a sizable bonus.  The biggest problem has been the transparency piece.  Goals are still “feel good” measurements and speaking the truth with data is still somewhat taboo despite the rhetoric.  To maintain my sanity I think about the next phase of my lean life and toy with the idea of writing about personal transparency; the leaning of human interactions to improve human endeavors everywhere.




7 thoughts on “Chubby Business – My Life as a Lean Fat Cat

  1. Thank you for the link. Ha! I can see why you would be careful with publication. This company (or rather the senior leadership team)seems a reason that “Lean” can leave a bad taste in some mouths, as other employees within the company watch and see this “fat” behavior. Lean should never be in quotation marks. Lance Gilliland

    Liked by 1 person

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