What is the problem?
“We tried Lean, but it didn’t work.” This is a sentence I have heard a few times in my 30 year continuous improvement career. What to make of it? Should we be surprised, write them off as ‘not doing it properly’ or realise that things can, and do, go wrong with full Lean transformation programmes, even, in exceptional circumstances and for left-field reasons, some of those supported by Ad Esse. Hopefully the latter, and the reason is very clear.
Lean is very hard to do at all, harder to do well, and very hard to do well over a sustained period of time.
It doesn’t take long to describe the principles of Lean to a group of staff or managers. Even training them in the main elements of implementation, what has to be done over 3-5 years to move a complete organisation over to a Lean culture, takes only a day.
So why is it that actually doing Lean is so difficult?
The main reason is that Lean is not like installing a new piece of technology in a factory or office to speed things up. There is no Lean ‘switch’ that can be flicked. Lean is about changing attitudes and behaviours. But attitudes and behaviours are formed inside the heads of people, and this is where the trouble starts!
Getting people to change their behaviour in a Lean programme is difficult, not because the principles of Lean are hard to understand, or even because they are contrary to what people want to do, but because people find it fundamentally hard to change their behaviours, even when they are motivated to do so.
If you need an analogy, look at weight loss. How many people in the UK are trying to lose weight at the moment? How easy are they finding it? Particularly, how easy are they finding it to maintain their weight loss when their new way of life has to become ‘business-as-usual’ rather than something special? The answer, sadly, is not very easy.
But how easy is it to describe the changes in behaviour that are necessary to lose weight? Four words…
Eat less, exercise more.
That is it. 99% of those seeking to lose weight could do so by following a four-word instruction, and yet it is harder than it seems. Why? Because it is about changing habits, behaviours and attitudes, and all of these exist for many reasons, not all of which are obvious. Equally, an individual’s behaviour at work exists for many reasons other than ‘they don’t care’. It can be due to poor training, poor focus, lack of appreciation of what is happening or needed elsewhere, or myriad other reasons.
In an organisation trying to change its culture, there is not only one person involved, there will be hundreds or thousands, and they may not all be motivated to succeed to the same degree. Some of them may see Lean as a threat rather than a support, so communication and engagement at the start of a programme is vital.
In order to change culture, you will have to influence teams of managers and staff that you want to behave differently, to break down the barriers between teams, to focus on customers, to welcome problems as opportunities to improve and to see improvement as their role. On top of that, there are structural changes; like changing measurement systems (which may be making some people look good at the moment, and hence are liked); like redefining roles, responsibilities and accountabilities so that they are aligned with customer needs; like ensuring that IT systems are developed in conjunction with processes and the flow of customer services; and like instituting daily reviews of performance in all areas of the business.
So how do we make Lean work?
If we look at weight loss and exercise again, we find that structure, support and belonging, measurement and regular feedback make the biggest difference.
Rather than having to invent your own approach to improvement, most people and organisations find it easier and better to use a structure that someone else has researched and developed. Weight Watchers points, structured menus, boxercise classes, etc. all show the benefits and increased chances of success of using a tested format. Similarly with Lean, the philosophy, tools and techniques have all been developed and tested in the white-hot furnace of industry and business. Why invent the approach when one is already there?
Having a coach, tutor or motivator who can provide the best, easiest way for you to meet your goal is essential. People can improve using trial and error, but with organisational change we can rarely afford the impact of major errors. Coaches also meet you regularly, and that encourages you to do the right thing and keeps you on track. Knowing I am going to see my coach means I am more likely to do the training between sessions.
Measurement is vital. If you don’t know what is happening to your weight or performance, how can you be motivated to continue? Research has clearly demonstrated that people who measure their weight every day lose statistically more than those who only weigh themselves weekly. The use of Information Centres and other Lean measurement tools is vital as the regular measurement makes people accountable for performance in a way that they can understand and control, meaning they are much more likely to continue with it.
These are all easy to say, but hard to do, not only because they need behaviour and attitude changes from managers and staff, but also because some people might not see them as improvement. Being held accountable for your or your team’s performance is not always comfortable. Taking part in a process and structural redesign that makes your team smaller is not necessarily seen as improvement by that team’s line manager. Improved efficiency and productivity may not always be good news for all staff, particularly if the organisation is looking to reduce costs. But from the organisation’s and its customers’ perspectives, these are clearly all improvements.
Having a peer group that you meet regularly and to whom you have to account (or at least share your weight) also keeps people more on the straight and narrow. The success of Park Run has shown that people are much more likely to get out of bed to run with a group of people they know, than they are to go out on their own, even though the actual running is the same. Lean uses the tool of daily meetings to share information, share concerns and share ideas so that each individual is strengthened by the rest of the team.
At Ad Esse, we understand that the Lean approach, and use of the right tools and techniques, builds on the very human principle that sustained change is hard for humans. The best way to achieve it is: to have a clear structure with a systematic approach; to use coaches/consultants to develop a programme that will work for you; to measure the right things in the right way; to discuss the measures with your peers and address any issues; to hold people to account but to recognise that they are only human; and to have fun whilst doing it.
If you are trying to lose weight, good luck, keep focused, use a simple model, and don’t let one slip-up stop you. If you are trying to implement a transformation programme, be realistic, use Lean Thinking, lead it from the front, and talk to Ad Esse.