Over the years, Lean has evolved from primarily a tools-based approach to a focus on an end to end systems view and developing people at all levels of an organization. If done correctly, managers enable people on the front lines to be confident enough to change and improve their processes.
Focusing on the middle management section of an organization can yield results that may not have previously been seen through a purely “tools based” improvement approach. Tools are useful to help people solve problems in a process but ultimately, it’s not the tools that solve the problems, it’s people that solve the problems. This is why it makes sense to spend time developing people more than teaching them tool specifics. Also, just teaching people continuous improvement tools and expecting them to improve their process is a foolish assumption too.
W. Edwards Deming (pictured above) famously said: “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.” That quote is as powerful today as it was more than 50 years ago. In almost all of the processes that I have seen over the years doing continuous improvement, this quote has rung true in almost every process that I’ve seen. So, do we start with tools or do we start somewhere else? Let’s start somewhere else.
Recently, we were working with a client on their Lean journey, applying the Shingo Model approach to their organization. We spent quite a bit of time with their middle management team, teaching them about the 10 Guiding Principles which align the systems within an organization in addition to the traditional lean wastes and basic tools. The goal was to help develop their management team and in turn they would develop individuals on their teams.
The 10 Guiding Principles:
Did it work?
Applying this approach was a test for all of us and the validity of the principles. Progress in the lean journey was good and people throughout this organization were beginning to embrace the change going on around them. Our big test came unexpectedly one day while we were coaching a process lead who happens to run a packaging process. The process is involved as you would expect it to be and had a sizable team assigned to it. This particular lead had a concern which was that he wouldn’t be able to deal with his team’s individual approaches and their opinions as to how they carried out this process. It wasn’t that everyone did the process uniquely different but rather generally did things the same but had their own preferences and styles on how to best do the job. Definitely not unusual to encounter in continuous improvement. Rather than go right to the tools and lecture everyone about how waste is bad and how to standardize their process further, we coached him to encourage each team member to share how they go about doing packaging and to experiment with it. This approach wouldn’t alienate anyone and encouraged participation from the entire team. The lead created a survey for this team that allowed everyone to capture the various pieces of equipment that they use in the packaging process. The result was astonishing! The team actively engaged in the exercise and was soon experimenting with various ways to improve this process. In the end, it wasn’t the focus on the tools that brought success but a change in the approach of how we worked with the process lead.
In a recent podcast about applying systems thinking to the homeless problem, author Steven Spear said, “High velocity organizations are highly attuned to the difficulties that operators have. It’s not so much looking for flaws in our work because it reflects our thinking of it. We really want to find flaws in our thinking and improve them.” I couldn’t agree more.
“High velocity organizations are highly attuned to the difficulties that operators have. It’s not so much looking for flaws in our work because it reflects our thinking of it. We really want to find flaws in our thinking and improve them.” Steven Spear
As I walked away from the process that afternoon, I thought about something I’ve heard about over the last few years which is “failing fast isn’t the best way to improve.” I’ve always taken issue with that thought. Improvement isn’t effective when someone unilaterally decides something or instructs you to use a tool to solve a process problem. It is effective when the entire team gets involved to understand their process. The team will stumble and learn along the way but in the end, their change sticks and they become vested in the process. That’s success.
Written by Mark Abrams, senior consultant with S A Partners in the USA