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The Human Side of Lean

By July 27, 2022 No Comments

The event

On 14th July, we were delighted to welcome Noel Hennessy to the Dublin Lean Network to talk about the human side of Lean.

Steve Halpin first introduced Noel to the Network.  Noel then went on to say that he fell into Lean.  By way of background, he explained that he worked in production all his working life. For Noel, he loved the practicality of lean and how it could almost give you instantaneous results.

Press play to view the webinar recording or read on for a short summary.


After working in the electronics (Measurex, Seagate, 3COM) and pharmaceutical industries (Stafford Miller, Norton), Noel joined Lake Region Medical in 2001 as Production Manager. Subsequently, they began their Lean manufacturing journey two years later.

Lake Region Medical, founded in 1947 by Joe Fleischhacker Sr., has a rich history of innovation stemming from Mr. Fleischhacker's development of the process for manufacturing pacing coils used with the first implantable pacemakers.

Noel’s passion and enthusiasm for Lean led to his promotion as Continuous Improvement Director in 2005. He was again promoted to Op Ex Director for Europe and Asia when Lake Region was acquired by Greatbatch Medical in 2015.

During Noel’s tenure, the site achieved the Shingo Bronze Medallion and Irish Medical Technology Company of the Year in recognition of their Operational Excellence Program. The Shingo Prize is widely recognised as the ‘Nobel Prize’ for manufacturing. Noel is now an examiner for the Shingo Institute and participates in assessing sites globally on a regular basis.

He was awarded his MSc in Lean Operations from Cardiff University in 2007 and his Doctorate in Business Administration from Waterford Institute of Technology in 2017. The focus of Noel’s doctoral thesis was exploring the relationship between Employee Engagement and Continuous Improvement.

Noel’s search for best practice has seen him participate in global benchmarking visits to Europe, the US, India, and Japan. He is a passionate advocate of the transformational power of Lean and the Shingo Model in particular. He feels that this places the emphasis on the behaviours and systems required for sustainable transformation.

How do you start Lean in your organisation?

Noel explained that he would ask whether something critical has happened in the organisation or whether it is a business opportunity that has arisen?  Another option would be to look at what was the biggest problem in the company?  It may be a problem with equipment and then you might bring in TPM (Total Productive Maintenance).  Or it may be a capacity issue.  Then you could use SMED (Single Minute of Die).
It might be whatever constraint management is experiencing, so it’s always good to focus on where the problems are. But in his mind, the first question he’d ask is “are your people on board?” Because if your people are not on board, there’s no point in trying to drive the company.  You can have the best intelligent systems in the world. You can spend a fortune on Gemba boards but if your people, for whatever reason, decide not to engage, then it’s very difficult to move forward.
Noel said that Lean is about resilience and it’s about keeping the people with you along the journey.

Lean is simple, but it is not easy”

Noel Hennessy

He said that there is Lean training available, and this can be done in days not weeks.  And on the back of that, you pick a pilot area where you might have a positive frontline lead or a good team.  He went on to say that he is a huge advocate of consultants.  He advised to make sure there is a transfer of knowledge, then apply that learning.  Make the mistakes and then learn from them.  He stressed that people must still run the business, so you still have orders and commitments.  So, the trick here is to balance running the business with improving the business.

What started Lean in Lake Region?

Noel explained that the business had a site in Pittsburgh with their headquarters located in Minnesota.  Joe Fleischhacker met somebody who suggested they should look at Lean.  This was met with some resistance as six months previously they started off doing Six Sigma training and had nothing to show for it.   There were a lot of headaches and they decided to introduce two consultants into the US sites.
Noel remembers being at the meeting when he was Production Manager.  When the company announced that two consultants were coming in 6 weeks’ time, this was the first time he had heard of Lean.  Noel was skeptical about the consultants and about Lean at the time.  The consultants spent a day and a half training the staff and then they went out and applied the knowledge they had learnt.  The results were impressive, immediate and real.  From then on, the business went from strength to strength.

How can you get people more engaged in their work?

Noel answered this by saying that the most important thing is first and foremost, to get excited about the work and the company yourself.  He recalled a visit to their company by the manager of another business.  This manager said that he met approximately 90 people that morning and every single one of them was as excited about continuous improvement as Noel was.
Noel thought sometimes people forget how much they can influence decisions. So, to him, if applied properly, Lean can positively impact every single KPI, whether it is delivery, safety, engagement, turnover, productivity, or introducing new products.
One of the attendees said that, in his experience, nearly every company should be doing Lean, because it simply works.  But there are quite a lot of CEOs and business owners who, for various reasons, just don’t buy into it.
He made the point that what he finds is that people are about 80% of the problems he comes across.  It’s not about the process and it’s not about other issues, it’s about the people.
Noel agreed and added that everyone knows that there is a difference between having people engaged and disengaged.  Noel also emphasised that the buck stops with the leadership team.

"Management needs to be fully onboard and excited about Lean first before introducing it to the rest of the employees."

Noel Hennessy

At this stage of Noel’s presentation, we broke up into 3 breakout rooms where Room one discussed how to engage the people.  Room 2 talked about how to engage the boss and Room 3 was concerned with how to keep the Lean journey going in the business.

This blog post was written by Trish Ferguson, Steering Committee Member of the Dublin Lean Network.

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