LMJ editorial board member Joseph Paris examines the challenges and mistakes when maintaining lean when business booms.

The laws of nature are absolute. When we discover a contradiction to a supposed law of nature, it is not nature that is wrong, but our understanding and definition. Once, it was believed that the Earth was the centre of the solar system, supported in our understanding of the science at the time – and was proved incorrect.  And it was once believed that the Earth was flat, and this too was disproved. Until the mid-1800s, the fastest man had only travelled by horseback. And when travel by rail came to be, there were many who believed the human frame could not withstand speeds of over 100mph. Even Queen Victoria, on her way from Slough to London, would have the Engineer travel less than 40mph as she found anything over that speed quite terrifying. Instances such as these have been demonstrated by man time and again. And with each revelation comes a transformation.

The laws of man, on the other hand, are made by men and can be bent or broken by man as suits his ever-changing purpose. Take mobile phone service, for example. It’s been a very long time (a few decades) since mobile service providers in the US eliminated roaming charges when travelling within the United States. A person can drive from Houlton, Maine to San Diego, California (5,456km, 49hrs, 14 States) using a single service provider, and never roam.  Contrast that with the European Union; where a person can drive from Lisbon, Portugal to Tallinn, Estonia (4,284km, 42hrs, and 10 countries) and be charged rather outrageous fees for roaming while in each country, even though only using Vodafone as the service provider.  Two (apparently) similar circumstances with two dramatically different outcomes with the only difference being the laws of man that have been adopted.

It is similar with the various tools, frameworks, and methodologies associated with continuous improvement, which are laws of nature based in formula and fact. For instance, the definition and use of value-stream mapping (VSM), 5-S, single minute exchange of dies (SMED), and plan do check adjust (PDCA) are all universal in their definition. So why wouldn’t the deployment of an initiative using these universal tools simply be a matter of cut-and-paste from place-to-place with the results being identical?

When I travel from country to country talking about such programmes and initiatives, the very first thing everyone says is: “I am sure it works that way in the United States, but things are very different here in [insert country name] and many changes will have to be made for it to work here.”

Their immediate gut reaction is they are somehow different and unique to all others – as if the laws of nature are somehow invoked differently there than anywhere else in the Universe (the same can also be often said of and within some companies). They are predisposed, even conditioned, into thinking this is so, and they have come to this conclusion without even looking at the details.

When I moved to Europe to progress the international relationships of my business, I opened an office in the United Kingdom. No matter what country I visited in the European Union, they would say: “You have an office in the UK?  That’s nice, but if you had one here in [insert EU country name here] we could probably do a lot of business.”

On the other hand, if I told them my office was in the United States, the tribalism would vanish and there was a much greater degree of openness and engagement. Such is the challenge facing companies that do business globally and especially in those companies that are publicly-traded multinationals.

The reality is the only major difference from country to country, and company to company, is the culture and the infrastructure, and making changes in either takes considerable effort and investment.

Case Study:  Global leader in the process industry, span of five years.

Most continuous improvement initiatives within companies are conceived, orchestrated, staffed and managed at the corporate level. This is a common blunder and will significantly squelch the potential benefit of the initiative as the improvements realised will be limited by their capacity to be implemented and ability to be sustained.

Challenge: overcoming culture and creating capability

People are tribal. They want to belong to a community of others with shared values, interests, beliefs, fears, and aspirations – collectively, the culture. They will defend their tribe against all outsiders who want to challenge their culture.

Challenge: overcoming culture and creating capability

Other than being acquired, there is nothing more threatening to the culture of a business unit than a visit from corporate, or worse, people from corporate coming to change the way a business unit is operating. When such a visit occurs, people at the business unit think only a couple things:

1) Leadership feels threatened because their first thought is the people at corporate don’t believe they are doing a good enough job or they are sending spies;

2) The rank-and-file believe this is another visit from the corporate tornado and all they have to do is hunker down and wait until it passes. So everyone seeks shelter until the threat passes and then they go back to their normal way of being.

Approach: create embeds – a cadre of leaders from the business unit

Instead of installing people from corporate at the business unit; better results will be achieved quicker if the investment is made by corporate to be accepted by the culture of the Business Unit, rather than to try to conquer it, because you need to convert resistance into alignment for success to be possible. By far, the most effective way of accomplishing this is for corporate to give ownership to the business unit and create alliances, with the first step in this process being for the leaderships of corporate and the business unit to select individuals from the business unit for education and training in the tools and techniques necessary to support the corporate vision.

The next step is to ensure the ownership and responsibility for success lies within the business units and for corporate to take the role of mentor and support. The business units should control the identification and prioritisation of projects and also be responsible for establishing the objectives and evaluating their achievement and effectiveness. Here, it is important to pursue the low-hanging fruit so quick wins are realised, confidences and alliances can be built, and the creation of a pull within the business unit is achieved.

And lastly, but most importantly, corporate should not expect that what worked in one Business Unit or situation can be cut-and-paste into another, but rather that the improvement ideas can be replicated elsewhere, taking into consideration the context and circumstantial differences that exist from one instance to another.

Challenge: Building Capacity

There are many types of people in an organisation with the two most basic types being those who are leaders and those who are followers, with each being dependent on the others for their very existence. Leaders cannot be leaders unless they have those willing (not compelled) to follow – and followers need a leader who they want to follow. It therefore stands to reason that a company must identify those who have the traits to be a good leader, and then invest in those people so that they can realise their potential.

As mentioned above, these leaders should come from the business units so that those who are expected to follow will feel there is empathy for their being a part of the business unit and they believe they are understood and respected – that their culture, values, and circumstances are being taken into consideration. With this, there is an implicit trust that is pre-established and the building of good followers is facilitated.

Another dichotomy in the types of people that exist in a company are systems people (who tend to be the leaders) and process people (who tend to be the followers). Systems people have a tendency to take a macro-view of an organisation and how it works, but have less capability with details. Whereas process-people have a more micro-view within an organisation and possess a command of the details, but have less capability for seeing the big-picture. My observations have been that there are fewer systems people than there are process people, which means that the leaders need to take the time to effectively communicate to the followers as to how and what the followers are doing is important in the company’s achievement of its strategies.

Approach: Identify and build leaders and followers

One of the first steps in building a company-wide programme, especially one that is international in nature, is to build a core team whose primary mission is to create and mentor additional teams and team-members. Most likely, these people can be found already existing within an organisation and it would be a mistake for a company to believe it has to hire an entirely new team to build and deploy an effective programme.

As with any continuous improvement initiative, the first step here would be to define the future state (or strategy) of the continuous improvement programme, develop a plan (or tactics) for achieving it, for identifying the resources (or logistics) necessary to support the plan, identify any gaps or risks that might exist, and take action to fill those gaps or mitigate the risks.

It is also important to look across the functional silos of the company and not just focus on supply chains, production or logistics. For a programme to realise its full potential requires the involvement of and cross-functional integration of everyone; finance, sales and marketing, product design and development, human resources, information systems, facilities, etc…

Achievement of the potential benefits will not be possible using just a core of corporate resources. The involvement of a significant number of resources across the enterprise – to varying degrees and as necessary – will be required to achieve the future-state.

Challenge: Programme stalls

Too many companies make the mistake of believing that all of the efforts for building capability and capacity must be done face-to-face. This is a blunder which will result in the failure of the program to meet expectations or realise its potential. If such an approach is taken, the challenge will be to coordinate schedules of team members, which results in sessions to be spaced further and further apart and significantly delaying realisation of programme benefits.

In addition to the delay in time to benefit, the delay in applying what was learned in the sessions results in an atrophy of the knowledge gained (or lost completely if those who learned leave the company or are transferred out of the programme), team members become less enthusiastic for the programme and their participation, the entire programme loses momentum and, ultimately, reaches stall-speed.

Another root-cause of programme stalls is a lack of a structure and base curriculum to deploy for indoctrinating the intended programme participants. The education and training cannot be performed on a one-off basis as this is not cost effective nor conducive to establishing any velocity in the deployment. Better to have a cadre of students (at least 20 to a class) being brought through the programme at once – with multiple cadres running simultaneously, each for different levels of indoctrination. It is also unwise to develop a curriculum in-house, as it takes many years to develop a robust enough curriculum to adequately support a programme.

Approach: Increasing velocity, sustaining momentum

Configuring and deploying a solution to the challenge increasing velocity and sustaining momentum is the single-most critical factor in realising the most benefit from your programme. Without doing so will result in programme results being sub-optimal. In simple steps:

1) Create a structured program for on-boarding, educating and training, and graduating program participants. Define the desired outcomes in focus and capability for each level of participant in the programme.

2) Unless you already have a very robust curriculum, which satisfies multiple levels of employee engagement, procure an existing curriculum, which will become your company’s curriculum. Do not attempt to create this from scratch, it is not your company’s core competency and will take far too long before benefits are realised, dooming your programme to failure before it begins. And make sure to bring the curriculum internal to the organisation – don’t send students outside as it is important that this programme is able to be managed and monitored by your company.

3) As suits their capabilities, personalities, and dispositions, turn the existing continuous improvement team at corporate level into mentors and facilitators of the programme, or coaches to the students.

4) Identify, vet, and select employees at the various business units to be the students indoctrinated into the programme. It is critical to the success of the programme that knowledge is disbursed throughout the organisation and at the point of presence so that improvements, in the context of the unique environments, traditions, and circumstances that exist at the business units, are taken into consideration and a sense of ownership is established.

5) Leverage technologies to increase the velocity programme and accelerate the realisation of the benefits. Nothing will slow the programme faster than requiring that all efforts related to the programme are done face-to-face. The logistics involved in coordinating schedules will add considerable (and unnecessary) friction.  It is far better to leverage a blended learning model involving a robust curriculum consisting of online and offline content (presentations, videos, books and articles) and exercises (projects, homework and assessments) – and supported by the delivery of live lectures via web-conference and cyber office hours for one-on-one support. These efforts should be supplemented with one-on-one coaching performed at the business unit by the programme coaches so that the knowledge and its application can be considered in the context of the circumstances and reality that exists at the business unit.

6) Ensure that the programme sustains the momentum by continually moving forward in both numbers of those trained and the continued involvement of those who have graduated from the programme. Failure to keep moving forward will result in the atrophy of the capabilities of the individuals, reduction in capacity by attrition, and diminish the long-term benefits of the program.

The net-net: 

One company, a publicly-traded (listed) multinational in the process industry with over 100,000 employees and facilities located around the world, that developed and deployed such a strategy realised considerable, growing, and sustainable benefit.

  • Before: Their continuous improvement team consisted of 25 professionals. Their ability to effect improvements was limited to what those 25 professionals could accomplish on an annual basis. However, most of their improvements regressed towards the before state over time because the knowledge and motivation began to atrophy as soon as the professionals departed.
  • After: Within four years of following the programme prescribed above:
  • The continuous improvement team at corporate has grown marginally and have changed their role from facilitators to that of coaches, trainers, and mentors
  • The number of continuous improvement practitioners has grown to over 3,000 disbursed across the various business units from which they were recruited. This represents a 12,000% increase in the capacity and capability.
  • The new continuous improvement practitioners, having been recruited from the business units, put through the programme, and returned as embeds, are; able to see the opportunities that exist as insiders that are welcomed and comfortable, identify the potential of the opportunity and the approach to their realisation in the context of their environment, and complete their projects with a pride-in-ownership and the naturally occurring sustainability that is a result of pride-in-ownership.

People rely upon their culture, traditions, nostalgia, and tribalism because of the comfort they find in what they know – and are thus powerful forces that are difficult to overcome, indeed. Accordingly and predictably, people are naturally resistant to change because it is the unknown – and people fear the unknown. It can be reasoned, therefore, that change brings fear in people. Hence, the best chance for effecting change is not to have it thrust upon someone, but for the “someone” to engage, become an active participant and not a spectator, and for them to realise for themselves the benefits of the new way and adopt it as their own.

“Amateurs talk about strategy and tactics, but professionals study logistics.”
– Gen Robert H. Barrow, USMC

In the end, someone can dream great dreams and create great strategies. But unless you have the capabilities and capacity – and win over the hearts and minds of those whose nostalgia, beliefs and traditions you wish to change – you will never achieve them.