Lean Transformation…Ready, Set, Go!

Lean transformation

“Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.” – Confucius

Lean transformation success rates have been recorded in many subject books, articles, and presented testimonials within the range of 10 to 30%. Lackluster and disappointing considering Toyota started developing the philosophy and methodologies back in the 1940’s.

Despite this low success rate Lean has not gone away. In fact the growth rate of implementation, by almost all types of businesses, continues. This is because when it is successful the resulting system improvements greatly improves an organizations customer value and of course organizational financial metrics. People who have experienced the success also experience the positive change in behavior which is emotional enough for them to become disciples of this business philosophy.   

Currently, many Lean Practitioners have determined the root causes of these low success rates as lack of leadership engagement, applying Lean as a short term program to solve a current problem, and isolating Lean to tool applications because of the unwillingness to accept it as an organizational philosophy of continuous improvement and respect for people.   

What I have noticed is a lack of organization readiness. The organization was not ready with preparedness understanding, they were not set with all stakeholders, and when the leaders thought they were ready to go, there were many problems preventing the needed building of momentum throughout the organization hierarchy.

I like to use the well known phrase Ready, Set, Go as a metaphor. Each part of the phrase represents a distinct step which must be taken to provide the best opportunity in creating the needed momentum and prevent failure going forward with the transformation. Each step must be clearly understood, committed to, practiced, and supported. Excitement should be built during these steps but leaving the blocks before the gun is certain to cause catastrophic failure.

So what are the keys within these preparedness steps:

    1. Ready

When organizations achieve a state of readiness employees feel not only motivated but also confident in their ability to forge ahead with a planned order of actions. This starting step will take the longest as the organization will most likely have to change behaviors, starting with all levels of leadership. Leadership acceptance of change, possible organizational structure change, providing base skills for employees, and describing the required future state are the main elements of this step. 

leadership engagement, employee engagement

Leadership Acceptance of Change

During a transformation leaders automatically feel their role is with change management, that they automatically have the skills for organizational change readiness. They assume this because once all of the meetings of what has to be achieved, for change to happen, are over, the routine is to go back to their regular day to day fire fighting along with added monthly reports about the progress of the assigned projects. This is accepted because their boss and their bosses boss also ask for similar monthly reports. Because of returning to the current culture, the transformation has very little chance of ever happening. Leadership is responsible for determining the needed culture but first their own behavior must change. Their responsibility is to learn the methods of Servant Leadership and then to start practicing. Everyone in leadership roles must accept this practice and must become a mainstay in their daily routines. They must become more Givers than Takers. One of the best methods to learn this new style of leadership is to work together as peers while practicing Servant Leadership. The key to employee engagement is leadership engagement.

Organizational Structure

A flatter organization has many benefits a) improved communication b) faster decision making c) promotes employee engagement d) customer feedback reaches more employees e) people are more likely to support each other along with sharing knowledge. These are all key attributes needed when in the starting blocks. A flatter organization can start with a structure of Autonomous Teams where many of the middle management become Facilitators for teams through the practice of Servant Leadership.

Providing Basic Skills

In starting a transformation there must be an investment in not only training but also with mentoring and coaching the basic and needed employee skills for transformation. The mentoring and coaching are a significant part of Servant Leadership. Problem solving abilities and practice, to reduce firefighting, must be a substantial part of the transformation culture. Systems thinking is another practice, isolated improvements are not realized by customers and certainly will not provide much contribution towards building momentum.

Describing the Future State

Be aware, communicating the phrase Future State can immediately invoke anxiety and negative connotations. To accept change people, at all levels, need to be able feel what it is going to be like when business milestones are accomplished both short term and long term. Describing a future state of 30% growth, 20% increase in Net Income, or meeting a 30% increase in productivity does not create motivation for many people at various levels of the organization. Too many times the transformation initiative begins with a high ranking leader flying in for a one hour communication meeting taking place in a makeshift environment where very few of the people can even hear the message. The leaders must understand part of their new a role is to Support, Teach, and Promote the newly developed Future State, again part of Servant Leadership and part of their daily routine. But the first step is to understand how to develop a Future State where ALL employees will directly benefit from the transformation. Without this the likeliness for successful change fades quickly. 

     2. Set

At this point the organization has been able to start the change through understanding and practicing these new requirements. This preparedness has created some excitement and confidence but they have only moved up in the blocks, not ready to go…yet. Leaders now need to pay attention to and understand the perceptions and needs of all the key stakeholders. All of the Stakeholders affected by the transformation must be identified, both internal and external. Internal stakeholders are the work teams, support staff, and departments that might even be outside the four walls of the local operations. External stakeholders are Customers, Suppliers, and Regulatory organizations. Not addressing the needs and perceptions of key stakeholders can result in huge delays and even be a transformation stopper because of an unexpected reaction coming from one or more of the key stakeholders. So before going ahead understand this about both internal and external stakeholders:

  • Values can only be determined from customers
  • How might they react?
  • What are the outputs? Where do they go to? Do they improve the system?
  • Who are the winners and losers?
  • Who are the real owners of the system or situation you are changing
  • Can they help or stop you
  • What would cause them to get in your way
  • What would lead them to help you
  • What are the ethical limits, the laws, financial constraints, limited resources?, and regulations
  • How might these constrain your solutions? How can you get around them

   3. Go

Most organizations start their transformation with this step. Top runners clearly understand why they would never get into the starting blocks without preparedness, they know the race result would be embarrassing, and their competitors would be clear as to the why. During this step there are a few more key elements that must be in place, Visual Management, Leaders Standard Work, and Time for Improvement.

Visual Management

When the organization is at the Go step people need to have real time process information to discern if the value system is operating according to the prepared strategy. This is what a properly designed visual management system provides, real time operational information and project improvement progress. Operationally, decisions for corrective action can be made quickly because the root causes are fresh. These corrections are made mostly by the Autonomous Team structure and leaders are there, in the Gemba, to Support, Teach, and Promote. Project improvement progress is the second key part of the visual management system. Tactical project A3’s are posted and kept up to date as close as possible to where the improvements are taking place. The location is extremely important as it provides a) because the A3 is the organizations standard for problem solving people walking by can see the why, how and when of the improvement progress and sometimes adding diverse ideas b) stimulates learning for these other parties c) creates discussions where the project teams can directly show interested or learning parties exactly the location or mechanisms they are improving d) provides a live coaching, support, and learning station for leaders. The most important part of a visual management system, it must provide value for both the people working within the system and the organizational leaders. Many visual management systems I have observed are seen as additional work for the people working within the system and for the leaders, they can get the information they need from an ERP system or some other operational software. If designed correctly visual management will make the jobs of the value stream workers easier and they will learn from it. For the leaders, the design will provide operational and project information they cannot get from any type of software. The visual management will bring the leaders to the Gemba because of the value the system conveys.

Leaders Standard WorkLeaders Standard Work

We live in the 21st century and what is disappointing leaders continue to stay away from the Gemba. In fact organizations are still designing their buildings with leaders located on an upper level from the value systems and the location of the value systems have large windows where leaders can walk by and point. Servant leaders go to the Gemba daily and with purpose. They have learned, during the Ready step, customer value is created in the Gemba. They have learned how to Support, Teach, and Promote requirements to achieve strategic targets and expected behaviors. Leaders Standard Work provides a guide to getting the right things accomplished, being effective on a daily basis. Most of the leaders standard work is aligned with accomplishing a focus on strategy deployment. Provided here is an example of Leaders Standard Work developed for a line Supervisor. The strategy for this organization was to improve quality and delivery. The picture only shows the morning routine but there was also standard work for the afternoon. Leaders Standard Work provides a method for accomplishing daily progress. It is a method for creating improvement pace. Most leaders wait until there is a monthly or weekly report sent to them, this provides monthly or weekly progress, daily progress is what gets things done and creates momentum.

Time For Improvement

If you want to create a continuous improvement culture you must understand the value of time. Not operational time but improvement time. Once reaching the Go step there has been considerable preparation time taken, this is improvement time. At this point do not let it become wasted time. Many leaders I meet will tell me they cannot afford the operational time for improvements. I reply with a story about an ambitious Autonomous Team who came to the leaders to ask for some time to support the community by supporting some grade 1 and 2 classes. They already knew the answer, they must meet their weekly targets. We asked how much time they required, they answered with the complete shift on Tuesdays. The result, they never missed their weekly targets. You will find improvement time begets operational time at this phase of the transformation, the organization is prepared. Something else to consider at this point in the transformation, if the leaders proclaim weekly improvement time (should be daily) and then continue to cancel this planned time are they developing a continuous improvement culture? Did they do a good job at the Ready and Set steps? 

It is important to start with organization readiness before starting any type of business transformation. If you have not taken these steps of preparedness when you started Lean, I would be confident in saying your organization is struggling with continuous improvement and your customers are not realizing their expected values

Lean Teams USA



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