Kaizen Your Political Skills

Kaizen your political skills.” That was the advice from a well-known Lean coach to a person who was succeeding with Lean but found himself having to fight against corporate leaders’ demand that his division adopt corporate’s ERP system and purchasing practices. Corporate leaders were unconvinced that Lean management enabled the division to function better without the ERP system and corporate purchasing practices. Why did they think that?

Two reasons: First, the ERP system is a sunk cost. Therefore, all divisions must use the software so that its cost can be charged uniformly across the corporation. A division cannot opt out because doing so would place an unfair burden on other divisions. And, if one division opts out, others may do so as well, further increasing costs in other divisions and reducing their competitiveness. So, the division must comply with corporate’s wishes despite its Lean success. Sunk cost is one of many decision-making traps that leaders succumb to – and, as in this case, status quo as well.

Second, corporate leaders will reason that every business today uses ERP systems, so they must do the same. Companies that do not use ERP systems (or certain parts of it) are seen as technologically backward or as outliers and ignored, while those that do use ERP systems are viewed as forward-thinking, in-step with the times, and in control of their business. This is another decision-making trap called confirmation bias, which I refer to as “Lean’s kiss of death.”

As is often the case when it comes to Lean management, decision-making traps work in combination with illogical thinking to help leaders avoid some or all aspects of Lean. In this case, requiring a division to use the ERP system and comply with (likely zero-sum) corporate purchasing practices reflects at least three forms of illogical thinking: avoiding the force of reason, expediency, and abuse of expertise.

The advice offered by the Lean coach was to do a better job of convincing corporate leaders that their ERP system and purchasing practices were unnecessary. The way to do that is to kaizen one’s political skills. This approach, however, is unlikely to change the minds of people in top leadership positions who have cognitively and socially committed themselves to various decision-making traps and illogical thinking. Rare is the executive who will admit they are wrong; the social costs are just too great.

Organizational politics is a social activity whose main concern is appearances, and political appearances do not reflect facts or reality. Politics demands enormous amounts of behavioral waste from its participants, which, in turn, results in lengthy time delays and blocked information flows. No business can afford that. Lean requires practitioners to eliminate both process and behavioral waste, not eliminate process waste and generate behavioral waste. The latter is inconsistent and will undermine success.

The Lean coach says “…at the corporate level we have to recognize the simple fact that political [sic] is what corporate does.” In other words, politics is the normal condition. That is incorrect. Corporate politics is an abnormal condition, one which creates time delays and information flow problems. The normal condition is no politics. That is the standard that one must strive to achieve.

Organizational politics prevents us from practicing what we learned on Day 1 of our Lean training and practice: To see reality and be fact-based. One cannot improve processes or behaviors if reality is obscured or if facts remain hidden. This is why it is so important for top leaders to participate in industrial engineering-based shop floor kaizen.

Do you think organizational politics cannot be eliminated? Think again. My book Better Thinking, Better Results, about The Wiremold Company’s Lean transformation, was worth writing for many reasons, one of which was the near-absence of organizational politics. How did that happen? Read the book and find out.

page246But, what follows is the result. Kevin Fahely, Wiremold’s former vice president of human resources, had many years of work experience in conventionally managed companies rife with politics. I asked him to compare those past experiences to Wiremold, as well as other important aspects of company life: fear of failure, information flow, and acceptance of reality. The image at right (Chapter 11, page 246) shows his responses. We can now clearly understand why “REAL Lean” businesses are such formidable competitors. The “Respect for People” principle creates an environment in which wasteful behaviors are minimized or eliminated, resulting in fewer and shorter time delays and much better information flow. Process flow and behavioral flow go together.

In that same Chapter (pages 248-255), I described the Lean transformation, for both the company (processes) and for leaders (behaviors), as a change-over problem. It is analogous to the machine change-over problem for set-up reduction. This simple model is a new way of understanding and executing the change process for leaders, which everyone now knows is the most critical part of any Lean transformation. The better advice than to kaizen one’s political skills is to engage my Lean leadership change-over model as part of normal executive training and development.

It is also wise to take concrete steps to eliminate decision-making traps, as well as illogical thinking, again, as part of normal executive training and development. From decades of experience, we know that this is best achieved by participating in genba kaizen. Learn by doing, not by politicking.

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