Teaching elephants to dance: Interview with BMW's Hanne Dinkel (transcript)

Hanne Dinkel

Technological disruption, global competition, changing customer demands - whatever your industry it’s likely that your company is being buffeted by these forces of change. But, especially if you’re a large organization, it can be incredibly difficult to adapt quickly to them. So is it possible to teach an elephant to dance?

Yes it is, says Hanne Dinkel, Vice President of Operations at BMW’s Leipzig plant in this PEX Network interview. Here's how BMW has been using Lean and beyond to adapt to the sheer velocity of change today.

Editor's note: This is a transcript of a recent podcast and has been edited for readability. To listen to the original podcast, click here.

Yes, he really can learn to dance

PEX Network: You are going to be a speaker at our upcoming Process Transformation Week here in London, and the presentation that you’ve taken on is: Teaching Elephants to Dance: Why the future belongs to the fast and the agile. Why did that particular topic resonate with you?

Hanne Dinkel: It comes from two different perspectives. On the one side, BMW is a big company - we have 100,000 people around the world – so this is like the "elephant". But if you look inside the company, you can see that there are some cultural aspects within BMW that make us more agile than others; that’s where this notion of "dancing" comes in.

I think this is something quite special to BMW. And it leads to some key advantages in the market such as when you look at things like electro-mobility. We are one of the leading companies in terms of taking advantage of this this opportunity - or other challenges such as creating sustainable cars - and our advantage comes from being more agile than other companies.

We are more agile than you might expect from a company of our size. This is very much down to how we implement Lean philosophy on the shop floor. If you’re comparing other companies, normally you’d look at Toyota and then you’d see a lot of tools and processes. You’d try to copy them and try to get them in your organization. But a lot of companies fail with this approach because it’s not about copying the tools. It’s more about understanding the culture.

What we started at BMW is a totally different approach to how we implement Lean. We call it the "Kata Way." It means doing continuous improvement kata coaching in a high frequency way, and we have started to implement this in our production areas, which is really giving us speed. By speed I refer to speed in change, improvement and also in problem solving. This is where I think we have a lot of good experience, what I will be happy to share this at the conference.

PEX Network: I’m going to want to delve into a little bit more some of the aspects of the work you’re doing at BMW at little later in the interview. But first a more general question: one of the things that we’re often hearing is that the pace of change is accelerating. But I can imagine that this is something people have likely been claiming for the last 100 years. Do you think that the pace of change now is different somehow?

Hanne Dinkel: Yes, I think it is different. If you just look back ten years ago, who was calling with a mobile phone? Think about what we can do today with a mobile phone! So in a way change is getting faster and faster and faster in our world and in our industry as well. If you cannot adapt to this high speed, you might fail in the future.

For instance, if you look for the challenge of natural resources and mobility one of the things you might see in big cities is that people are not owning their own cars any longer. Instead, they are trying to share cars. If the car industry is not adapting to these changes quickly, you might be finding yourself on the losing part of the organization or in the market. Therefore I think it’s very important to adapt to the speed of the market and that speed is higher than 20 or 50 years ago.

PEX Network: Is it technology that’s driving this acceleration of change?

Hanne Dinkel: I’m not sure it’s only technology. It’s perhaps also the changing lifestyle of people, especially as they adapt to things happening from the technology point of view.

So Apple is a very good example of a company that is taking things into the market that nobody had ever envisaged. But it’s not only the technology driving the innovation, it’s also changes in how we work together and how we live together and what kind of expectations we have in our changing world.

Demands from customer point of view and market point of view is getting more intense than it was 50 years ago. It’s easier to think the impossible, and also to get it done. That is something where technology goes hand in hand with what market demands, and we have to adapt to that.

PEX Network: Taking it back to BMW - how are you responding to some of these challenges?

Hanne Dinkel: If you look at it from a product range point of view, we have adapted, of course, with a new brand that we just brought to the market last year: the BMWi. This was a project that was started during the financial crisis; BMW adapted very early to expecting the market shift as mobility plays an increasingly different role in people’s lives - especially in big cities.

How can we early and easily adapt to this shift? How can we be prepared for when the markets are mature enough to stop and to jump on electro-mobility?

That’s one part of what we did at BMW. But the other part is how we really make it happen, this kind of innovation. When it comes to the BMWi, this is not only a car when it comes to electric mobility, it’s a sustainable car, so we also try to apply to those people that are living in big cities and they feel like premium is something not only expensive car but it might be also a statement when it comes to sustainability and to ecological resources. So this is also what we tried to apply with this new concept, and it is a lot of innovation in there, and it’s also innovation in the way we sell this car.

This is the one and only car in the world, I think, that you can buy via the internet. And we have already sold some cars only via internet, because people don’t need to go to the dealer, and a lot of people don’t want to go to the dealer. So this is what we put into there, so we try to understand the markets and we try to feel how do we need to adapt to this, and how can we really get the speed in the whole organisation to make it happen?

From the first idea to really getting this into a mass production environment, it only took a few years, and I think this is one of the examples where you can see we try to dance yet we are an elephant, of course, because we are big company.

But we try to adapt to these market shifts. It always starts with understanding what is really needed from a customer point of view. In this case, the customers want to have mobility. Maybe they don’t want to have their own car in the future. So we need to be prepared to offer solutions for mobility. It might even be no longer selling cars in the future. We don’t know today. But we are prepared to sell also only the mobility, if that’s what the customer wants.

PEX Network: You had mentioned earlier the role of Lean and the Kata Way. How would you say lean is helping you achieve these objectives?

Hanne Dinkel: I think Lean is one of the key success factors in terms of getting speed in the organisation. When you start with an innovation idea, you need to have an organisation that is used to having high rates of change.

We are so flexible and can adapt to the new processes because we are used to changing processes on a daily basis. We are used to improving things on a daily basis. This is actually where Lean helps you a lot to get things done, because it offers you the flexibility to implement new products, other products, in a very smooth way. More than if you are in a traditional way of producing.

If you do Lean in the Kata Way, it helps your organisation to get used to doing experiments. What is so important about Kata is that you give the organisation tasks. We call our team leaders and they get tasks on a daily basis where they need to look into how they can improve their process. They’re not just told what to do, instead they’re given a target and they have to figure out for themselves how to reach the target.

It starts a kind of scientific experimental learning. This helps an organisation to adapt to new things, because you are used to doing this kind of experimental learning where you see at the end of the shift what you have achieved. You have got a lot of learning in terms of what needs to be improved, what might be the next obstacle, and how you can adapt to this obstacle.

That is where, I think, those two things get together. You need to have this kind of culture in an organisation where you are used to make changes, and you are used to doing improvement. That helps to give the flexibility also to think the impossible similar to us before we started to design the BMWi.

PEX Network: It sounds very much like it goes back to that old precept: It’s all about the people and the culture. It’s not about tools and methodologies, per se.

Hanne Dinkel: It is really about the culture. That again comes to the point that I took at the very beginning of our discussion. BMW is a networking company, meaning that it’s not about waiting before you get some tasks from your senior executives. It’s starting already with ideas you have on a day to day basis.

It’s appreciated to think things in a different manner and to find people to make these ideas happen. That is, I would say, a very strong part of the culture of BMW to have this network and to work in this network where people are willing to do a very good job. They find always colleagues where they can put together a very good team to make things happen.

PEX Network: Ending the interview on a more general note. As companies try to become more agile and faster at responding to market shifts in the way that you’ve discussed that BMW has really been looking at. How is it possible to balance that need for speed with quality? Do you think that you can still deliver high quality products at speed?

Hanne Dinkel: I would say this is very easy; it comes back to the Lean perspective. Quality is something that is done on a day to day basis from the operators and the processes. When it comes to an industry like the automotive industry, your operators are those people who ensure the high quality. If they feel responsible for what they do in terms of quality, then, of course, it can also ensure that you have quality in the process and speed.

Our team leads feel responsible that no defects can leave their area of responsibility. Once you’ve created that culture of accountability then it’s very easy to say: Okay, we have speed, but we also ensure quality, because on a day to day basis we discuss where the problems are and we find fast solutions for the problems. And then of course you can ensure quality on a high speed.