COLUMN - What does lean do for people in your organization? This column explores how their way of thinking changes as a culture of continuous improvement and problem solving takes root.
After studying lean efforts for over 20 years and in many fields, from automotive to retail and healthcare, we now have a clearer idea of what adopting lean thinking can do for a company’s leadership:
A true lean transformation relies on the engagement of all people all the time or, as the lean masters taught us, on “developing the kaizen mind in every employee rather than applying improvement tools to every process.” Kaizen is the Japanese word for improvement, or “change for the best” that, in the lean context, means relentlessly challenging how we work and what can be improved, step-by-step, in the spirit of 100 improvements of 1% being more powerful than one improvement of 100%.
Lean thinking, as we now know, requires a complete mindset turnaround of the company’s leadership, which must learn to: lead from the ground up; to put the customer first no matter what; to relentlessly focus on improvement and teaching problem solving; to understand and develop the power of intense collaboration; and, lastly, to aim to engage every employee in making suggestions on how to run their own work and contribute to the company’s success. This is never easy, and not all leaders have the gumption to take it on board, but 20 years down the road the leadership aspects of lean is well understood.
The model, however, relies on a profound transformation of every person’s way of thinking – not simply C-class level. Therefore, the question for employees in a lean company is: what does lean do for you?
When all goes well, if you work in a lean process you will see:
As continuous improvement gets established the need for fire-fighting diminishes and problem solving becomes faster but less focused on quick fixes. The basic coaching method can be summarized as “go back, look longer, ask why.”
As problem solving progresses steadily and less frantically, employees learn new ways of thinking, and, in particular, discover that:
As many firms adopt digital tools, they hope that becoming connected in real time and data driven will solve their innovation and performance problems. What we see looking from the ground up is that connectivity tools work as accelerators. In a great relationship, these tools can spectacularly increase productivity and effectiveness. But in a poor relationship they can also inflate and crystallize conflicts.
We see it with Twitter and Facebook: connectivity tools encourage fast thinking. But from observing successful lean companies we believe they need to be tempered by deep thinking as well.
Without visualizing the steady pace of work and the space to stop and question, simply relying on fast thinking (to use Daniel Kahneman’s terms) is unlikely to deliver the hoped-for productivity and innovation results.
Lean provides a way to further build on the "It depends" answer to many questions, by asking why one more time to prompt deeper thinking.
Michael Ballè is an author, speaker and lean executive coach. He is co-founder of the Institut Lean France and an associate research at Telecom ParisTech. He wrote, among other books, The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager. Michael also sits on Planet Lean's editorial board.