The Management Dilemma
Lean Management has a bit of an image problem. For every gung-ho manager and consultant I meet, there are countless front-line workers who just aren’t that into it. This is a big problem. As is probably common knowledge by now, “Lean improvements are lead by those who do the work.” Many organizations worry that they won’t be able to effectively implement Lean, but maybe that’s the problem. Maybe they shouldn’t be “implementing” it at all. Maybe they should be doing something else. It may sound picky, but “implement” has a very top-down feel to it. This is a problem if the goal is to foster buy-in and self-motivated change. As a leader, it is not your job to implement Lean; it is your job to initiate it. Many managers have a hard time with this. They feel pressure to be in control. To change this mindset requires a great deal of humility and respect.
Nobody wants to admit that they’ve been going about their job ineffectively. This is true of managers and those whom they manage. If managers enforce standards, they want to believe they have done a good job. If employees have been following standards, they want to believe they have done a good job. For many, the suggestion that there is a better way of doing their work comes across as unwanted criticism, or worse, an accusation. This dynamic has done a lot to give management a bad name, not only to those being managed, but to the manager’s themselves. Since this top-down mentality is so deeply ingrained in workplace cultures, the action of leaders set the tone for the entire organisation. Here are a few simple habits that can turn things around.
When someone under your leadership notices a problem or has a suggestion, it is not a criticism of you as a leader. Far too often, managers take this kind of input as a complaint and dismiss it. By dismissing people’s input, you might be dismissing an opportunity to improve the process in ways that benefit everyone. Not all suggestions yield value in the end, but you will never know which ones will unless you keep your mind open.
Listening doesn’t just mean putting up a suggestion box. Even the Kaizen Newspaper format that I often suggest (a publicly posted bulletin of problems and suggested solutions) is not enough on its own. People have to use it. They need to use it because they know the value. They need to make suggestions because they know they have the power to do something. Many organisation give awards or even quotas for improvement ideas. This is not the way to promote valuable suggestions. Such methods only encourage people to make uninformed or unnecessary suggestions just to keep the numbers up. The result is that organisations that use this approach quickly begin to doubt the value of employee driven improvement. Kaizen is important, but it is not a metric, and it should not be quantified as a score.
As a Lean leader, it is not your job to know everything. One of the best ways to lead your team to innovative solutions is to explore the current state. Don’t just admit what you don’t know; discover what you don’t know you don’t know. This is what we mean when we say go to the “gemba”(the place where work is performed). First you must be present, then you must open your mind, and then you must test and validate the solutions that your team invents. We often say, “Do it first, then think.” This means experimenting. You can’t know if something will work until you try it. Having a flexible and scientific workplace culture will allow you to adapt quickly.
This sort of validated learning can be understood by looking at the PDCA cycle. PDCA stands for Plan, Do, Check, Act. However, I believe the problem solving process really begins with checking the current state (listening being a part of this). How can you plan something if you haven’t first checked the facts and acted on them? You can’t, because you would have no way of validating your plan. In this case the order should become CAPD (Check, Act, Plan, Do). You Check the facts, Act to test solutions, Plan changes accordingly, and Do what works best.
Let It Go
People in management positions are responsible for the success of their team, but responsibility is different from control. If you try to control everything by yourself you will have only yourself to rely on. Conversely, if you trust and respect the members of your team enough to let go of complete control, you will have every person’s mind and ideas working toward your common goal. Two heads are better than one, and team of heads is even better. As a leader, your task is not to create more followers; it is to create more leaders at all levels.
A leader is anyone who takes it upon them self to change for the better. It does not have to imply authority or seniority, but people higher up the chain of command are most vitally in need of leadership skills. Often, people are promoted to managerial positions based on their performance in earlier assignments, but this experience is often structured around a different set of skills. Managers who feel in over their heads as leaders must develop the new skill sets necessary to lead people without controlling them. When they can do this, they will show others that they too can develop these skills. This is how you initiate Kaizen leadership, instead of trying to implement it on your own. The days when companies as a whole can follow industry leaders are over. Today’s markets move too quickly, and disruption has practically become routine. To stand out from the competition, you need to show customers that you can provide them with value that no one else can. This unique value cannot be found in industry guidebooks or seminars, it can only be found in your own people.
Are you a Change Agent?
Kaizen culture is not easy to establish, and it takes time. One person cannot force change, but one person can start it. Malcolm Gladwell refers to this type of person as a Change Agent, and they exist in all walks of life. The history of the world is made by those who change it. Change Agents include our greatest inventors, artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs, but they also includes those unsung heroes who solve small problems day after day in whatever job they find themselves in. They are nurses, mechanics, welders, policemen, line cooks, and teachers. These people also change the world, one small solution at a time. You can do it too.
If you’re struggling to initiate change in your organisation, start with yourself. I regularly lead tours of Lean organisations in Japan with my company, Enna. Over the years, I have seen firsthand the amazing benefits people experience by getting out of their comfort zones. I often hear people say, “We thought we knew what kaizen was. We thought we had it figured out.” In that sense, the tours allow them to know what they don’t know. Questions are the first step to discovery. In this sense, I suppose exploring organisations outside your common realm of experience is not the ultimate discovery. It is the key that opens the door. The real discoveries are the solutions you discover when you return to your home company. This is the discovery that allows you to take what you learned and leverage it to make meaningful changes that last.
Kaizen isn’t just about reaching the highest peak. It is about realizing the there are taller mountains to climb. The key to this is “hansei” (self-criticism and reflection). (Image via Jun Nakamuro)
Even if you can’t afford to travel all the way to Japan, I encourage you to visit other organisations and learn from both their successes and failures. You might even consider opening your doors to customers or visitors from abroad. The host companies from our Japan trip have done this, and the result has been a fantastic exchange of ideas. Many companies worry that they will give away some sort of secret by opening up like this, but they have much more to gain than they have to loose. Within reason, the exchange of ideas you can have with other companies and your customers is what creates more value added processes in the future. By the time any “secrets tricks of the trade” get out, they will already be old news, because your organisation will have made new solutions and discoveries based on what you have learned. Ideas are the driving force behind every great solution. When you Listen, Learn, and Let It Go, new ideas flourish. Don’t let fear of rejection or failure hold anyone back. Do it first, then think. There is no shame in making mistakes; there is only shame in ignoring them. Putting ideas into practice is the only way to sort effective ideas from ineffective ideas. You must make mistakes quickly, so you can learn from them and ensure they never happen again.