In this article, Ian asks one of their trainee lean practitioners to reflect on the challenges of implementing their first sustained lean improvement project – applying lean principles to the roll-out of a new information technology solution that directly impacts the quality of customer experience.

It seemed so simple. The team proposed an improvement to an existing process, and planned its deployment. The original process was cross-department. The new process was single-department. The new process had 83% fewer steps, and eliminated wastes in motion, transport and waiting.

The process involves updating a database using specific software. The new process required a roll-out of this software to empower colleagues around the building to implement data changes themselves, rather than log requests and wait for them to happen – improvement from the ‘teach-a-man-to-fish’ school of process design. The successful execution of this process directly affects the quality of the customer experience at various points of contact with the organisation, and successful implementation depended on effective roll-out of guidance, training and software in order to bed it in. These plans were presented to senior stakeholders, and proceeded to implement.

If you’ve had any experience of process improvement, you may have sensed a creaking at the foundations of the proposed implementation strategy. Perhaps you asked yourself:

  • What does a more efficient process mean? Who cares?
  • Who were the stakeholders? How were they determined?
  • How was the roll-out facilitated, and how was the effectiveness of the rollout measured?
  • How did you manage and control how well the new process bedded-in?
  • What steps were taken to mitigate the risk of colleagues failing to grasp the requirements of the new process?

The trainee lean practitioner and his team were so confident in the quality of this new process that they felt it would implement itself. What did they learn? Processes don’t implement themselves, no matter how logical. Here’s why:


Lesson 1: Planning a better process does not guarantee a better process

It may smell, sound and look obviously better to you – but is it to everyone else? If you’ve been asked to redesign a process, be aware that often no-one will have considered the process with as much intensity as you, as recently as you. Others may not even be aware, or agree, that there is a problem.

Better is subjective. Everyone will feel the quality or efficiency (and pin down what these nouns mean early) of a particular process differently. People may prefer the inefficiency they know over the efficiency they don’t. Being told that changing working practises will benefit the company strategically may not help implement change at the coalface. Show don’t tell, and involve colleagues at all levels at the planning stage. Otherwise your stakeholders might not feel like stakeholders.


Lesson 2: Cascading communications (or, Chinese whispers)

We presented the proposals to the managers of the colleagues who would be executing the new process, and then trained lead-users who were trusted to train their own colleagues. Remember that people’s first impressions will depend on how content is delivered – are you prepared to delegate responsibility for delivery to anyone outside your project team?

Culture-shifts that facilitate process-change must be top-down – so the managers must be onside, and if you rely on them to deliver your message, ensure they get it. Similarly, training a trainer is efficient – if they deliver your message with the right attitude.

This boils down to how your change has been presented. An opportunity to learn new software, or an unfair shifting of workload? Ensure that the right benefits are highlighted to the right people: administrators may care about personal development and learning new software; middle-managers like balanced workloads; directors want reduced costs.

Ishikawa teaches us that we must be bold in delegating authority. But authority must be managed and controlled to maintain drive by the time your message reaches the coalface. Maintain the ratio of hoshin (direction) to kanri (control/management).


Lesson 3: Processes aren’t rolled out in siloes

As important as ‘how’ is ‘when’ your message is delivered. Consider the context of your implementation, politically, morally and emotionally. What is happening organisation wide, and how will it affect how your improvement proposal is received? One driver for this process improvement ambition was merger with a larger division – a desire to get the data warehouse in order. This was an admirable aim theoretically, but realistically positioned the change as one in many for our colleagues – and a relatively unimportant one at that.

A string of changes can cause fatigue, blinding colleagues to any wider strategic gains. It may be worth considering your long-term approach to change, rather than buffeting your organisation with incremental improvements – even when the advantages of the improvements you propose compel you to rush your roll-out. Time your deployment strategically.


Lesson 4: Momentum and priority

Momentum and priority are two of the most powerful forces at play in pushing new tasks into existing workloads. The effectiveness of the roll-out depended on colleagues having access to software. As per Hofstadter’s law, the software rollout, which depended on a third department, took many times longer than estimated. The software roll-out straddled the launch- extinguishing any momentum. Colleagues lost interest and became frustrated, dampening engagement.

As such we operated a transitional process for many months while technical issues were resolved, which was deeply unsatisfying for stakeholders. Any efficiencies offered by the new process were quickly forgotten. It is vital that you operate quickly to keep colleagues warm – otherwise the work you need to support your process will quickly drop down their list of priorities.


Lesson 5: Be strong

Define roles, empower people to fulfil them, and don’t waver from them. Resolve was weak when responding to requests for help. It was vital to have a demarcation between assisting and guiding colleagues in the first phases of the roll-out, without doing the work for them. Compromise in this area will lead to ineffective implementation. Roles must be defined and understood. Everyone must understand and accept phase-out and handover arrangements at all times. There must be tools (documentation, guidance, trained colleagues) in place to support your resolve. Don’t catch the fish for them, but make sure they have all they need to catch fish themselves.


So what?

These lessons sound awfully like the things that would normally be identified in a risk register. And many were. Though there was a failure to predict all issues, the problems took a familiar shape: foreseen risks that came to bear as badly as predicted if not worse; and risks that hadn’t been identified. The outcome of the process implementation would have been better had the risk register been more realistic and had we acted more quickly to identify and stem new problems as they occurred. Further, a change readiness assessment would have helped us navigate the context of the rollout.



These reflections are not really a surprise. Having long held the belief that successful change is roughly one third ‘what you do’ and two thirds ‘how you do it’, the challenges of momentum, engagement and stakeholder commitment are clearly not new. Sadly, they are often under-estimated when people use a tool-based focus for applying lean.

Many organisations have made significant gains through lean. The real challenges come when the low hanging fruit have been gathered; achieving true, cultural adoption of lean takes much more, both in terms of time and complexity of approach. This is where the real breakthroughs are often made.

This in itself is a great sign. In these post-recession times it is the clever organisations who inject renewed momentum into their improvement efforts. It pays to remember, however, that the challenges of implementing sustainable change at the gemba are critical in achieving sustainable cultural lean. This is nothing new, but it is important learning for both old and seasoned lean practitioners.