Nathan Wilson is a continuous improvement specialist at the Ministry of Justice and in this article broaches the sensitive topic of going too far in to the lean bubble. How do you find the right level of lean knowledge without alienating those who just want the photocopier to work?

It’s estimated that up to 7,000 different languages are spoken around the world and over 1,000,000 people can converse in 150 (or more) of those. I however, struggled to get to grips with Spanish when I decided to take up evening classes and was told that my difficulties were typical for someone in their mid 30s. This led me to think about what languages I know, am comfortable with and how I best learnt them.

I realised that the language of lean was my most recently acquired tongue and so began to analyse how I had reached my level of comfort with gemba, kaizen, hoshin kanri, ishikawa, paretos and sigmas among many more. Essentially it all boiled down to time, effort and practical use. To cement my own understanding of these words, I was introducing them to others through kaizen events, mapping sessions and lean programmes in many different locations, organisations and offices. The initial feedback to most of those words was “What? What does that mean?” or to put it in other words “Please tell me in a language that I understand.” These people were asking me to translate lean in to English.

Initially there was some misunderstanding on my part, even a level of resistance inside me. I thought: “Lean will help these people, why do they not want to learn it?” and I had not properly listened to the message they were giving me. I had in essence become a little evangelical about lean within a very short space of time. I wanted those I was working with to use, understand and to spread the word – the lean words. The point I was missing at the time was that people wanted to improve, they wanted to remove waste and make life easier for them whilst in pressured work environments. What they didn’t want was the struggle of learning a new language and then trying to pass that on to colleagues, managers and partner agencies/companies. They were not concerned what the methods were, so long as they helped, so long as they made life easier and so long as they could maintain or improve performance. In my evangelical state I knew lean could do all of these and more and so my challenge became “How do I sell it to them as an improvement tool?”

The answer in my own organisation was easy, just use English. I had been working in the same department for six years and was comfortable with the working practices, people, systems and policies. However, after my training I had returned to the same business, with the same people and started to talk a different language. I could not understand why these people weren’t listening to me, had changed their approach to me or in the worst case, blatantly ignoring me. I blamed them for being rude, unmotivated and unwilling to tackle wasteful processes and practices. I could not understand why they were not engaging in the kaizen events, not wanting to identify their TIMWOODs or implement poke yokes. I was missing the fact that they did want to improve their business, they already knew what many of the wastes were and mistakes around processes and people infuriated them. I already knew all this, I had been working with the same people in the same offices for the past six years so why were we not seeing eye-to-eye? Language was the answer.

They were talking about improving the way they do things because they couldn’t cope, I was talking about kaizen events. They were asking “Why do we do this, it’s not needed?” and I was asking them to identify TIMWOODs. They were infuriated because no one ever re-ordered the photocopier paper in time, I was telling them a poke yoke would sort it. We were simply trying to sort the same issues yet becoming lost in language.

Working across the public sector in recent times there has been a great fear that any efficiencies, improved working practices or streamlining is simply a byword for cuts – further cuts to staffing and budgets. Therefore any resistance I encountered whilst working with people I largely attributed to that fear and it took quite some time to start to question my own approach and delivery. When I did, again it became apparent that I was creating language barriers.

Slowly but surely I altered my language. In a way, I had to un-learn the lean vocabulary. Each time I could hear a lean term about to come out I’d change it to plain English, on occasion I would even pause whilst I thought about the most appropriate match. I noticed some looks from practitioner colleagues who were questioning why I wasn’t using the vocabulary but I also noticed more understanding from the people we were working with. Less confusion in their faces, more acceptance and their challenges remained how to improve their day to day working lives and were no longer “What is he saying?”

Improvement events saw greater benefits than kaizen programmes, go and see visits returned much more meaningful results than a gemba and waste identification was a natural process compared to the forced TIMWOOD exercises. Staff and managers became more engaged and the message about simple language spread. The lean programme was changed to continuous improvement and now rather than thinking of bacon when first introduced to a business improvement methodology, staff now consider how they might improve what they do on a continuing basis. Removing the barrier of language has allowed them to focus on the meaningful and important improvement work and no longer worry about translations.

I have now moved on from that area of the business and work with the wider department and other government departments. However, I am regularly in the offices and see a changed culture. One that analyses their performance daily, looks for waste in all they do, matches their capacity to their demand and problem solve when issues arrive. It has become part of what they do, it is the way the office works and it’s all conducted in English.

In the past two years, my work across the wider set of government departments has brought me in to contact with a huge range of people, working in different cultures and operating vastly different systems and policies. Again, I saw plain English as the answer to introducing continuous improvement as an improvement methodology. It worked previously with great results and so I was convinced it would work again.

However this time I encountered some extra challenges. It was clear that one large organisation had been through a great deal of change and two programmes within two years that downsized the staffing compliments. Staff were suspicious of any change but also quite clearly tired of all the operational and procedural alterations that had taken place, they were suffering from change fatigue. Even if I was to use simple English with these staff, they wouldn’t engage, they had other, more pressing challenges and still had not settled after their previous two change programmes. I had to take a different approach and again that took some time and investigation to identify.

Meetings with staff, managers and senior leaders had revealed a corporate language that seemed to be newly embedding. There were words and phrases that staff were already comfortable with, things they were hearing that although attached to the change programmes, were meaning different things in different places. In some locations, the words were known but their meaning was ambiguous, senior leaders would refer to new ways of working but staff would just nod and carry on not knowing what was expected of them. This gave me an opportunity to tap in to that newly emerging language and use lean and continuous improvement to give meaning to some of it, make it work for the staff and improve their working lives.

Continuous improvement and lean had the opportunity to help the organisation realise it is new ways of working. It was facing increasing budget pressures, has some responsibility for public safety and had also been the subject of a large programme of cuts. This had created challenges around how an organisation with less resources can still provide a good level of service and maintain public safety. Lean has started to help the staff and managers to answer those questions themselves, but in a way that the business, their senior leaders and their colleagues understand.

The key across both areas here has been language. Capability is rarely an issue, lean tools are not difficult beasts and can be taught to all levels in an organisation. The appetite is often there too, most organisations, especially in times of financial hardship, want to improve what they do and use less resources to deliver it. Therefore the main barrier that I have encountered is language, one that is understood to those you are working with. In my own organisation I thought that the language of lean was English but I later learnt that it was the language of the organisation – there will have been personalised words, phrases and statements but as I had been working in the organisation prior to being a change agent, they were also part of my vocabulary. Moving on to other organisations I have understood that the language of lean is not English (in the UK, any way), it is the language of the organisation you are working with. You must adopt their words, phrases and sayings to fit in to the business and make lean something that is theirs, a methodology that naturally fits with what they do because it uses the same language. In that way, lean can belong to each organisation that uses it, in their own way for their own needs.

This can take some time. You have to do your research and you have to look at how the organisation has changed and how some of the language emerged. It must be understood what is attached to certain phrases and words and how staff were effected by the origins of the language – change programmes, downsizes etc. However, if done successfully the results can be startling. I have experienced offices engage and very quickly, improve their own, processes within weeks, where previous years of poor performance had been accepted. And then I have seen those engaged staff methodically work around other areas of their office, spreading the word and improving working life for colleagues and experiences for customers. They have also recently started to help colleagues in other offices and the wider business as well as stakeholders and other delivery partners. Working with these staff, conversing in their own language has returned benefits to the business and customers beyond what was initially expected because time was spent on improving things and not translations.

Take one point from this article and think about your lean language. Would someone in the queue at the post office understand your job title and job description? Are you a lean six sigma black belt or are you a business improvement specialist?