Learning to Run the Lean Marathon
Less than 20% of companies implementing any form of Lean related improvement programme manage to achieve worthwhile results. Effectively, 80% or more of companies fail to complete the Lean Marathon!
My experiences of working with a wide range of manufacturing and service sector companies that have suffered problems with their improvement programmes has led me to the realisation that to be truly successful at implementing any form of improvement programme (including Lean) and achieve sustainable results in the medium to long-term, an organisation must display three key attributes:
This is concerned with ensuring the organisation has sufficient understanding of the techniques and processes to be implemented. Companies with high levels of skill usually have access to one or more well trained facilitators who will lead the change process and will also carry out the training for the rest of the staff so that they have a basic understanding of the tools and techniques to be applied. Companies with high levels of skill have the technical understanding of how the change process will work, but can be brought down by a lack of management enthusiasm or a demoralised workforce.
This is concerned with the management motivation for change and the associated focus of time, effort and money from managers to make the improvement programme happen. Organisations with high levels of motivation are easy to spot because the management team speak enthusiastically about change, take an active interest in the change process, make time to visit 'best practice' companies to learn from them and also allocate resources, time and effort to the change process. However, a high level of management motivation in a company with a demoralised workforce is very threatening to those below and a recipe for failure.
This is concerned with having the right organisational culture for change, a factor that is the product of such things as organisational structure, communications and leadership style. An organisation with the right environment is an excellent breeding ground for successful programmes, but it can be heavily influenced by a lack of management motivation for the change process.
The root cause for 'Improvement Programme Failure' (a common disease I call IPF) can in nearly all cases be traced back to the poor application, under utilisation or absence of one or more of these key organisational elements.
Organising the Future
It is possible to chart businesses against how they deploy and utilise these three competencies using simple diagnostic tools and thereby to determine the levels of success that they are liable to experience with their improvement programme.
Once plotted, it is easy to attach organisational metaphors to companies as a shorthand notation of their approach to business improvement and based on experience I have chosen to describe three of the most common organisation types where the improvement programme is liable to not achieve results that are sustainable beyond the short-term:
'The Driven Dictator': High Motivation but Poor Environment
A common organisation with one or more strong senior members who have realised that there is real benefit in the application of Lean and who then drive the organisation remorselessly toward implementation.
Change in these types of organisation occurs through fear, is carried out unwillingly and is almost never sustainable, with the half-life of implementation being from weeks down to days. The management effort required 'getting things moving' and then keeping it going is immense and very wearing, resulting in the top team losing their fascination with the change process and often allowing it to die.
'The Fire-Fighter': Low Motivation and Poor Environment
Low motivation in this context is concerned with the management motivation to implement improvements and in these organisations management efforts are normally focused on achieving 'day to day' targets and fire-fighting, with little effort going into planning for the future.
Organisations with a low management motivation for improvement can still have a good environment and be great, and very exciting, places to work, often focused on the development of new technology or the provision of high levels of customer care.
The Fire-Fighting company more often than not, however, does not have a good environment and often has high levels of staff turnover, a struggling order book and high absence rates, with quality, productivity and costs all requiring significant management input, detracting managers from focusing on business improvement.
'The Disjointed Improver': High Motivation, Good Environment but Poor Skills
These organisations are getting close to being good at implementing improvement programmes, knowing that they need to do something and with a motivated workforce to implement the improvements if they had the technical skills. Often, change programmes in these organisations do achieve good results, but they would be able to achieve significantly more had they looked outside for the required technical skills.
Changing the Trajectory
Of course, these organisational metaphors are simplifications and different departments within the same organisation can often drop into completely different categories. For those organisations that are struggling to implement improvements there are things that can be done to change the probabilities of a successful and sustainable outcome.
Creating the Environment
A good organisational environment reflects the skills of the managers within it to motivate, organise, communicate with and lead the team. Managers with high levels of 'Emotional Intelligence (EI)' (as popularised by Daniel Goleman) tend to be better at creating the right environment within their team for improvements to succeed.
A manager or leader with high levels of EI will display five key characteristics:
- High levels of self-motivation
- Good social and inter-personal skills
- Empathy with their staff and others
- A high degree of self-awareness of 'who they are'
- An ability to regulate their behaviour to best advantage
The last two topics are concerned with understanding an individual's style and motivation (often called personality or psychometric profile), recognising differences in the style and motivations of others and then being able to regulate behaviour to bring the best out of others.
Another key factor in creating the right environment for change is recognising that different people will have different roles to play in the change process. An example of the roles that might be present in a change team could include:
- The Promoter – The person who champions the change process. This is often a manager with high levels of motivation for change.
- Technologist – People who understand the tools and techniques (and where appropriate technology) required during the change process. They may or may not be good with people.
- Enthusiastic Implementer – The people that will make it happen, have bought into the process and are keen to see the results.
- Supporter – Someone not directly involved but who provides encouragement to the team and communicates enthusiastically with other parts of the organisation.
- Planner – The people who do the detail planning for the change and who look for errors in the planning process. They may also coordinate the work of the other members of the team.
- The Team Player – The person who looks after the emotional welfare of the team involved in the change process, sometimes seen as soft but who provides valuable morale support and can assist in the conversion of sceptics.
Each of these roles will involve different skills and personality types to be successful and recognising and accepting these differences will be key to the creation of an effective environment.
Motivating the Top Team
If the top team is not motivated to implement improvements then it will not happen, simple as that!
Getting management teams to go and see companies that have benefited from the implementation of improvements and undertaking some management development training that includes an element of understanding of the tools and techniques of the change process to be implemented, or the improvement options available, will also help.
However, motivation is a personal thing and members of the top team cannot be 'ordered' to sign up to change as this will result in the words not tying up with the deeds (i.e., although they say they support the programme, their behaviour will say something different and the programme will often fail).
Gaining the skills required to implement improvements comes down to three things:
- Training – Acquiring the technical understanding of the skills involved
- Seeing – Going and seeing someone who has been through the implementation cycle
- Doing – Implementing some improvements
The key to success when 'doing' is to start small and build up the improvements, rather than go for the kill and secondly realising that it is better to implement something now that is 75% successful, than to keep planning for a 100% success and then failing to achieve anything.
Ok, so you may recognise that your organisation has some development work to do but don't know where to turn or how to proceed. Depending on where you feel your area of weakness to be you may consider some of the following:
- Staff survey – Carried out by an independent organisation this can provide a clear indication of the morale of the organisation. It is also possible to undertake a value chain survey to determine the views of you as a customer and supplier.
- Psychometric profiling – Usually for key personnel, this will help you to understand the roles that people should play in the change process and will also develop an understanding of differences in personalities between individuals – the first step to accepting differences in style and approach.
- Factory visits – Going to see how others have achieved improvements is a great way for helping to create the vision for change.
- Training – Gaining an understanding of what Lean or Agile actually means to your organisation often creates clarity for your own improvement programme.
As a closing thought, you should remember that even though your organisation has the right environment and skills and your managers the right motivations, your journey to Lean is a marathon and will require loving care over an extended period of time to become world-class for, in the words of Aristotle, 'We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an art but a habit!'
Mark Eaton is a partner in Nx Transformation Ltd, a specialist consultancy dealing with the introduction of sustainable change within complex organisations. Mark is also a director of Advance Projects Ltd, which assists public organisations to design, and implement complex support programmes aimed at raising productivity and levels of innovation. Mark was formerly director of the UK's Manufacturing Advisory Service in a number of UK Regions and was awarded the Viscount Nuffield Medal for his contribution to UK Industry.
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