During my travels, I interact with dozens of businesses across a variety of sectors, from pharmaceutical to clothing, and power generation to machining. From my experience, there is one common thread among all businesses that have successfully integrated lean concepts: lack of lean velocity. More specifically, there is a lack of a rapid and targeted approach to introducing, integrating and sustaining lean, resulting in continued progressive improvements over the long-term. There’s a reason for this.
It’s no secret that the successful integration of lean results from management support and buy-in. I’m sure you’ve also heard that a “lean culture” must exist in order to sustain lean, but the question is, just what the heck is a “lean culture?” Well lean is often introduced at and through senior management, however to flourish and sustain, it must be carried forth by the people and for the people.
Let me provide you with an example. A company I visited in Winnipeg more than a year ago was quite successful with their integration of lean. So much so that they had begun to help other businesses introduce lean as a side venture (a bad idea, as their expertise was focused solely on one sector in a very niche market). Yet despite all of the fame, glory and very impressive gemba walk, it was clear that their momentum had stalled. Venturing off the gemba path leads to finding areas where even the most fundamental components of lean, such as 5S, were no longer sustained. These employees had failed to see lean as anything more than a fad.
Every business initiative starts at the corporate level and gets transferred to the employees. If employees do not believe in or see how the initiative can help them, it will not be sustained, regardless of how many times leadership promotes or mentions the initiative.
Consider the following example:
A desire to increase sales is only meaningful to employees if they can connect how the growth will help them to sustain their jobs, increase their wages, find further opportunities for growth within the company or a combination thereof. If a lean initiative or program appears to achieve anything other than this, it provides no value to employees and hence it will not sustain or survive.
How can you build sustained momentum through your employees? There are three distinct considerations.
If you haven’t spent the time determining what matters to employees, then you will be hard pressed to engage them in the long-term value of lean. This can be as simple as a president or CEO sitting with a cross section of employees to find out why they enjoy working at their company, or it can be more holistic by engaging the entire group in a discussion around their value perceptions. Despite having assessed their company “why” with their employees, it wasn’t until my client’s CEO met with nearly a dozen employees that they gained a crystal clear understanding of why employees enjoyed working at the business. With this information, they were prepared to make the connection to the value of lean for employees.
In every business, you can segment employees into three categories. Those who are content, those who are boisterous about their concerns and those who would be better off employed elsewhere. It’s unfortunate that most often, businesses focus the predominance of their effort and leadership time attempting to appease or reprimand the latter two groups. From a lean perspective, what they should be doing is focusing their energy on increasing the engagement of the former group — those that are somewhat content. To engage requires conversation and two-way communication. It is a means of ensuring other’s concerns or questions are heard and acted upon accordingly. By engaging content employees, we capture the engagement of a majority in the second group at minimum. As the saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
It’s not enough to communicate with employees, but something must be done with the information that is exchanged. Middle management often filters this information. To actually engage employees in any lean program, it’s important to break down barriers to communication, which means that middle management filters have to be identified and eliminated. Senior leaders have to continuously engage with employees to understand what their concerns are and how they are feeling about the progress being made to support them.
So you see, sustained momentum in lean is about more than culture; it is about building communication channels that facilitate two-way discussions, the results of which are action and progress. Anything less is simply another “flavor of the month” initiative and my guess is that’s exactly what you are trying to avoid.
Shawn Casemore is the founder and president of Casemore and Co. Incorporated, a consulting company helping organizations improve their operational performance. A recognized speaker and writer, you can learn more about Shawn and his company by visiting casemoreandco.com. © Shawn Casemore 2013. All rights reserved.