As an engineering and manufacturing company, we see lean projects on every scale and across every sector. For every company where we see lean manufacturing techniques operating efficiently, we see one where automation equipment lies gathering dust in a corner. It’s not because the equipment was specified incorrectly. It is not because the company has changed production techniques. It’s because there can be a blatant and point-blank refusal by employees to adopt new thinking, lean processes and efficient manufacturing techniques.
The term ‘lean’ can spark fear in every employee’s heart. Will our jobs be safe? What additional work will it give me? Why can’t things just stay the same? These are valid concerns because, unfortunately, lean projects are often instigated as a result of a short-term need.
The company could be facing competitive pressure from more efficient, more agile organisations. There might be an urgent need to cut costs. It could be because there is a rise in customer complaints due to falling quality. One thing that these all have in common is that the organisation’s response is reactive. And when we have to react quickly to a situation, engaging our people in why the transformation is needed comes very low down on the list of priorities.
Of course, it’s not impossible to successfully instigate and deliver a lean project reactively, but the companies who do it most successfully, and reap the rewards and the return, are the ones who take a long-term view. They raise their eyes from the immediate here and now and look towards a possible future. They inspire their people in the vision of the company they want to create. They instil in them a desire to be part of this future. They engage them in how this can be achieved and they show them how their role really matters and their important part in it.
Taking this long-term view requires strategic thinking, but it also requires stamina. It takes strong leadership to develop a technicolour vision of the future, backed up with detailed planning. These steps can be long and arduous. That’s where stamina is needed. And it takes nerve. Successful leaders are those that take a leap of faith and hold the course.
And what about reassuring employees? The first step in engaging people in a lean project, is answering the ‘What’s in it for me?’ question. While business leaders might mean ‘improvement, efficiency, investment’, employees tend to hear ‘job loss and redundancy’. That’s because very often they are correct. Lean initiatives can result in a fundamental change to the way things are done, the working patterns of staff, and will usually disrupt the environment. But there will be new and different roles for employees, they just have to see how they could fit in – and they have to have time to prepare themselves for a new, and possibly different future.
Lean manufacturing can challenge people intellectually, asking them to think differently and come up with creative suggestions to improve manufacturing processes. Employees will have to face a great deal of change, and we know that change and disruption a lot of people hate.
Tips for reassuring employees
- The first thing is to involve employees early on. Rather than setting up a closed group to consider lean manufacturing, speak to employees and let them know that you are embarking on a lean manufacturing initiative.
- Give them the business reasons why lean manufacturing is being considered. Express the vision of the company – where you are heading, the challenges you are facing and what they can do within the business to create a successful future, for both the organisation and importantly for themselves.
- Set employees a controlled environment where they can consider improvements within their own jobs and departments. It’s important that they have fixed boundaries in which they can offer suggestions for improvements.
- Engage them creatively in the process. Encourage them to speak to their peers, customers and other people they liaise with to bring ideas for improvements. They’re the closest to the business and will often surprise you with their innovative ideas.
- Recognise that not all employees will react to lean initiatives in the same way. You might have Champions and Ambassadors in your team in which case, work with them early on and get them to engage your disengaged majority of Passengers, Sceptics, Prisoners and Challengers. Hopefully, you don’t have too many Thieves and Saboteurs in your team who are actively disengaged and highly disruptive. If you do, identify them and then move them away from the project. Fortunately, true Saboteurs are few and far between but they can derail a lean manufacturing project. [i]
Engaged employees stay longer, are more productive, make fewer errors and take better care of customers. Engagement is also fundamental to make certain the benefits of lean manufacturing are fully realised – increased production or efficiency, reduction in cost base, and a better product for less. It can be painful and establishing lean manufacturing is not a quick win. It requires faith and stamina, as well as a commitment to investment that will hold, even when times are tough. Yet, the benefits are boundless. Investing in engaging your team means manufacturing organisations will be truly fit for the future.
[i] Manage to Engage – the role of manager in employee engagement. Festo Training and Consulting, 2015.