How to Introduce Lean to People

Flaws in Lean
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Most leaders introduce Lean by dryly articulating business needs, followed by a high-level explanation of Lean, and then present the technical details of the implementation plan. They leave out the social details, believing them to be unimportant. I call this the “Lean for Owners” method. I would not introduce Lean that way, in large part because it does not respect workers. And also because workers will not follow a leader who knows nothing about Lean. Decades of experience clearly informs us that the “Lean for Owners” method of introducing Lean is a loser.

Instead, try the “Lean for Workers” method. Introduce Lean in a patient, step-wise fashion, allowing time for workers to comprehend the upcoming changes in thinking and daily routine that are being asked of them. In this way, workers are respected, which is a smarter way to start. Introduce Lean in several steps over a period of one month or so, carefully preparing the ground for acceptance. Focus each step on inspiring workers to believe in themselves and their capabilities for doing things that they never thought they could do. Emphasize inspiration in each step of the introduction to create demand for Lean by workers, rather than letting workers think that Lean is being forced onto them by management.

Pre-Work: In order to introduce Lean accurately and to be able to answer workers’ questions, top managers should spend a few months doing some homework. They should learn about Lean from various (good) resources, focusing intently on social aspects, flow, and kaizen. Leaders should participate in at least one shop floor kaizen whose objective is to create flow. This learn-by-doing will enable leaders to explain the kaizen process (and features related to timesuch as the time from idea-to-test-to-practice), desired social and technical outcomes, and the nuances and details that workers will no doubt ask them about.

Week 1: Vividly describe what a better life at work can look like for workers. It would include simplification of the job, better safety, less stress, fewer errors, better relationships among workers and managers, improved financial and non-financial results, and so on. Briefly describe how managers will think and do things differently to help realize a better life for workers, and commit to workers that nobody will be discharged as a result of process improvement. Then, roam the workplace for many hours each day for the next several days to answer questions that workers have, preferably one-by-one.

Week 2: Introduce the fundamental objective of Lean: Material and information flow. Describe a few key differences between the current processing method, batch-and-queue, and flow. Then, roam the workplace for many hours each day for the next several days to answer questions that workers have, preferably one-by-one.

Week 3: Introduce the process for creating a Lean organization: Kaizen. Explain, in some detail, Toyota-style, industrial engineering-based kaizen. Focus on how kaizen is good for people; how it stimulates thinking and generates ideas, and is a fun activity because it engages people to be creative and innovative. Then, roam the workplace for many hours each day for the next several days to answer questions that workers have, preferably one-by-one.

Week 4: Introduce the business need for kaizen, and reinforce the tight link between how kaizen helps grow both people and the business. Explain the buyers’ market that you face, how kaizen helps an organization respond to this type of market (shorter lead-time, lower costs, better quality, etc.), and management’s vision for success. Then, roam the workplace for many hours each day for the next several days to answer questions that workers have, preferably one-by-one.

Week 5 and Forever After: Kaizen, followed by kaizen, kaizen, kaizen, kaizen, kaizen, kaizen… lots of kaizen led by highly capable facilitators. Managers must participate in kaizen as team members, not in their role as managers, and exhibit enthusiasm for what they and workers have learned and accomplished. Then, follow-up with workers post-kaizen to understand their experience, quickly share and apply learnings elsewhere in the organization, identify other processes to improve, identify opportunities to improve the kaizen process itself, and so on – preferably one-by-one. Keep the inspiration alive!

Avoid These 13 Errors

As both a participant and witness to the practice of Lean management in industry, those who practice Lean management correctly provide us with a standard by which we can compare the practice of Lean elsewhere. With this industry standard in mind, here are 13 errors commonly found in the introduction and practice of Lean management that must be avoided:

1. Program or Initiative: Lean is not a “program” or “initiative.” It is the replacement of your company-wide batch-and-queue information processing system with a flow (Lean) information processing system. Lean is a new management system in which improvement has no end, not a program or initiative which has an endpoint.

2. Employees’ Concerns. Employees today have the same six criticisms of Lean as they had at the dawn of progressive management 100 years  ago. Management’s focus on the rapid implementation of Lean tools ignores their important and real concerns, and thus fails to respect people from the outset. Leaders must address employees’ concerns from the start. Unfortunately, most leaders don’t know how to explain they are not trying to turn people into robots or speed them up and burn them out. They must learn how to do this if they hope to obtain employee buy-in for Lean management.

3. Projects: Improvement activities are not “projects.” The term “projects” is a carryover from conventional management practice, which have a start and end. In Lean, we practice kaizen, which never ends. Replace “project” with “kaizen.” Projects have executive “sponsors.” These people don’t actually do anything.  Replace “sponsor” with “kaizen participant.”

4. Map Every Process: Many companies require process improvement teams to map the process before efforts to eliminate waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness can begin. This is not necessary and causes delays. Instead, proceed directly to kaizen. If mapping is necessary, do it quickly during the kaizen.

5. Kaizen Events: Kaizen is not an “event.” An “event” has a start and end. An event is infrequent. Kaizen has no end. Kaizen must occur every day. And everyone must participate in kaizen, president on down. Say “kaizen” instead of “kaizen event.” Click here and here to learn about kaizen.

6. 5S Events: Breaking kaizen up into smaller bits, such as 5S “events” or value stream mapping “events,” is incorrect, and is a carryover from conventional management practice. Don’t atomize kaizen. Kaizen, done correctly, results in more than a dozen improvements in different aspects of a work process, to get information to flow, not one single aspect such as 5S.

7. Suggestion System: Suggestion systems, QC Circles, etc., are important continuous improvement methods, but the huge gains in productivity can only be achieved through traditional industrial engineering-based kaizen. There is no Lean without kaizen.

8. Recommendations: The result of “projects” and “events” are recommendations to management about what improvements the team would like to make. This is a carryover from conventional management practice. Kaizen teams do not study an abnormal condition and then make recommendations to management, which introduces a delay. Instead, they quickly study an abnormal condition and then immediately make improvements. Management, from the start, empowers kaizen teams to eliminate waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness without needing to seek permission to do so. No delays.

9. Reporting to the CFO: The head of the Lean Office reports to the chief financial officer. This is incorrect. It is a common error because Lean is often understood narrowly by top leaders as cost reduction. Instead, the head of the Lean Office should report to the most senior person responsible for the value creating activity of the organization: president or chief operating officer.

10. Savings to Justify My Position: The head of the Lean Office says: “I have to find savings to justify my position.” While cost reduction is indeed important, the head of the Lean Office is also responsible for improving the value proposition for customers, guiding employees on how to improve information flow, organizational learning, creativity, and so on.

11. Change Management: Many continuous improvement leaders think they must use complicated change management protocols rooted in organizational behavior and organizational development. This is a carryover from conventional management practice. Ignore change management. Kaizen, itself, is the change management practice. Change management programs on top of kaizen simply add cost, create confusion, and introduce delays. Instead, do kaizen; lots of kaizen.

12. Lean in the Office: In the early days of Lean in industry, company leaders thought Lean was a “manufacturing thing” and limited its application to operations. That was a huge mistake. It took more than 20 years to convince business leaders and non-manufacturing department heads that Lean principles and practices applied to their processes as well.

13. Time Required to Make Improvements: The results companies get and the speed that they get them depend upon leaders’ understanding of Lean management and the processes they use to improve. In almost every case that I know of, leaders’ understanding of Lean management is poor, and the processes used are poor or incomplete. The result is very slow process improvement.  Improvements that occur over the course of two or three years should be done within two or three months. Don’t let that happen to you.

You will achieve better results if you carefully follow these guidelines for introducing Lean in your organization. Read Better Thinking, Better Results and Practical Lean Leadership to learn more on how to lead a Lean transformation.

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