Challenging norms

Published on
May 7, 2024
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
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CASE STUDY - The Manuelita Sugar Mill in Colombia applied Daily Management to improve leadership effectiveness and operational results, and to address silo thinking and communication issues.

When we introduced Day-to-day Management at Manuelita Sugar Mill, our goal was to more effectively support our leaders and their teams by understanding the work of middle management and operations and how it impacts business-level results. Indeed, our Lean journey goes beyond improving processes and achieving savings; it's about how we manage our daily work.

With an external environment where monetary volatility, uncertainty and intense and unexpected changes in weather patterns are increasingly challenging, realizing the best way to manage the organization is more important than ever.

When we began, our initial analysis shed light on several problems, including a clear tendency to think in silos, with each department pursuing individual improvements. This created communication problems between areas, leaving teams susceptible to goal distortion, operational inefficiencies and ill-informed decision-making. In other words, waste.

While our area had all the mechanisms, talent and technology to quantify the extent of global losses and opportunities related to work in the fields, our challenge was to understand how leaders integrated and internalized them to achieve the best possible outcome. It was clear that there was still enormous potential to exploit.

That's when we started focusing on response time and opportunity. We felt we were leaving things on the table that we couldn't address in time for various reasons.


Our department oversees Harvesting and Field Management. At Harvesting, Lean took root quite organically: because it is a 24-hour process, where problems must be solved immediately, Daily Management was a natural fit. Here we have a high level of maturity and acceptance of the Lean-way of working.

At Field Management, although we have progressed a lot, we are not yet where we want to be. A particularly tricky problem here is that seeding is a 13-month process, which keeps people from reflecting on problems right away and makes results harder to notice. With harvesting, problems cannot be fixed at a later date (we either meet our harvest goal today or we don't), whereas in the field we can adjust. For example, if I don't get the right fertilizer or less fertilizer than I need, I have the option of adding that in for two to three months. This does not really give people a sense of urgency, even though it is far from ideal to provide integrators weeks after the seeds are planted: it will not produce results as good as those we would get if seeding went well the first time. Moreover, correction is costly and time-consuming.

At Field Management, our challenge was to turn this long-term perspective into a day-to-day perspective. We needed a system that would allow us to identify problems early and close gaps more accurately and quickly by strengthening team communication and clarifying the roles of supervisors on the front lines of operations. That's where Daily Management became most useful.

The new approach was a far cry from the old management system we were using, which focused more on giving explanations than digging into the real reasons behind things that were happening. We had indicators, but they showed problems downstream and hid valuable information. This made it difficult to recognize the nature of the anomalies we were uncovering in the process.


It was believed that in the summer, water scarcity was the main reason for not meeting daily irrigation goals. In this situation, the management system led and developed by the leaders showed that the water had always been there and we needed to find a way to work with what was available in the best way possible. So the focus shifted to redirecting efforts and better synchronizing machine and staff resources.

As leaders developed a standardized way of managing and working, we achieved results and savings in terms of resource utilization, machine availability, technical team efficiency, timely delivery of equipment and providing greater agility to the operation.

The Lean management system not only helped identify the reasons why the irrigation goal was not being met; it also allowed us to transform the language with which operations base teams communicate when facing challenges. By quantifying the daily impact of these challenges on the process, prioritizing resources becomes a clear and transparent process.

This is a very interesting point. Today, we have a new approach to communication that came from the realization that the conversations we have with our people should reflect the level of the organization we are talking to (area managers, supervisors, operations staff, etc.). For example, as a department leader, I can talk to my senior managers about the tons of sugar we produce in each acre in a month, but that is not something that will resonate with people on the front lines. Such strategic KPIs won't mean much to them. But when I tell them how many acres to irrigate each day, I begin to speak their language. This is an exercise in translating the organization's strategic objectives into goals that everyone understands - another invaluable contribution of Day-to-Day Management.


Today, various teams meet regularly for Daily Management boards, identifying the nature of the problems that arise. The solutions they identify come from the collective understanding of anomalies. It is an ongoing journey that will never end, and we have also been measuring the maturity of the system based on our capabilities as leaders. We still have many challenges ahead, and the only guarantee of achieving results is to continue to work and improve how our leaders guide people and manage operations.

Too often as an organization we spend time discussing strategy rather than trying to pursue it. We now realize that it is a responsibility of leaders to help people achieve the goals that contribute to the fulfillment of the business strategy, while also developing their full potential as individuals and professionals.

This means recognizing the roles and responsibilities of each individual and allowing them to spend their precious time on that, not on putting out fires everywhere. I want our highly specialized and experienced people (from topographers to agronomists) to work on what they were hired to do. If all our leaders do is solve someone else's problems, results become unattainable.


Daily Management proved to be a great solution for Manuelita Sugar Mill. By creating a structure for our problem solving and escalation, for our communication and indeed our work, it enables our people to create the value expected of them.

We still lack a full understanding of how it works - especially in Field Management. We need to change people's minds and behaviors in a way that, when a problem occurs, they don't make excuses for why it happened, but ask for help to make sure it doesn't happen again.

We also notice that there is a big misunderstanding about the way some of our technicians view Lean Thinking: they fear that it will prevent them from using their knowledge well. This is a pattern often observed in other environments, including among people who have creative jobs. They also believe Lean will stifle their creativity, when in reality it does the opposite: allows people to focus on what's important and make the most of their incredible skills.

As we continue our Lean journey, we are aware that we need more change agents, more leaders who breathe and live Lean Thinking and who can encourage others to join in. We see this as the only way for us to meet the many challenges facing our industry. We have our standard and more and more tools are becoming available, including AI, to make sure we adhere to it. But achieving the standard (Type 1 and Type 2 problems) is no longer enough! If we want to thrive and innovate as a business, we must learn to challenge the standard. To succeed, our leaders must learn to solve Type 3 and Type 4 problems, instead of putting out fires all day.


By Juan Guillermo Ramirez,

Lean Transformation Manager and Coach, Lean Institute Colombia

Our role as Lean Coaches is more than telling people what to do; it is about helping develop leaders through Lean practices, artifacts and tools. Some key points considered during coaching at Manuelita Sugar Mille that helped achieve sustainability include:

  • Top management involvement in Lean Thinking and Practice, with the management team taking the lead in leading this journey.
  • Definition of clear and measurable objectives at all levels, aligned with the organization's strategy.
  • Leaders act as role models, demonstrating Lean principles and values in their behavior and decision-making.
  • Creating an environment where employees feel safe to raise and address issues, thanks to all the management artifacts and routines provided by the Lean system.
  • Active participation of all levels of the organization in identifying problems and proposing possible solutions.
  • Start by making things visible in a simple way (visual management) and involve everyone in the process.

As a result of working on different implementation fronts, work teams have continuously developed and modified all artifacts to the point where they can identify problems that were not easily observable before, and even change some paradigms.


Luis Guillermo Amu is Field and Harvest Manager at Manuelita

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