RESEARCH - Standard work is not meant for senior leadership, but there are activities that CEOs can carry out systematically to support a lean management system, starting from problem solving.
Words: Michael Ballé, Lean Institut France; Denise Bennett, City of Melbourne; Peter Handlinger, Turnstone Group
“What does standard work for CEOs look like?” is a question we were often asked during our recent gemba walks in South Africa. It’s a strange one because standard work was invented, first and foremost, to help operators distinguish good work from bad work – for each action in a sequence, and always from the customer’s point of view.
It is hard to see how it can apply to senior leaders, who work at a completely different level (and should always retain the flexibility of an open mind).
A leader’s job is to lead, which means to help people to change for the better. If the water hole is dry, the leader must take the tribe to the next one. If game becomes scarce, the leader must lead the shift to growing crops instead. A leader’s role is to first figure out what to do to prosper in adverse, changing conditions and then get people to follow. To this, standard work does not really apply.
Still, in a certain sense there are activities in which leaders can and should follow high-level standards:
The end result of problem facing, finding, framing and solving is real change in the form of specific change points, which move our processes from one way of operating to another, which performs better. As changes are built on everybody’s understanding of a challenge, how we intend to address it and how we work at it every day, they are both effective and lasting. Overall, they transform the company change point by change point.
Calling all the above standard work for senior leaders might be somewhat extreme. However, the work practices that lean management promotes are rather specific and, if push comes to shove, leaders’ “go and see” walks can be broken down into four specific skills:
Problem facing remains the foundation of all progress. Do leaders actually face their challenges? Do they do so purposefully (with what we call will power) and creatively (with what we call way power)?
If the will is there, the rest is a matter of skill. And these skills are just like any other: no one is born with them and they must be learned and honed through constant practice on the shop floor. To some, this becomes second nature, as brilliantly exemplified by Art Byrne’s wonderful book The Lean Turnaround (after 30 lean turnarounds, you sort of know what you’re doing). Others have to learn them from scratch and need the help of a good sensei.
If that’s all there is to it, why all the fuss? And why aren’t more leaders doing it?
Because, unfortunately, nothing is ever quite so simple when dealing with human beings.
Many middle and frontline managers will resist visual control because they immediately see how it will increase their workload. Furthermore, they don’t feel very confident in their own ability to solve every problem visual control will throw at them, or to train their own staff in doing it. Lean thinking brings in a major change for managers: training their direct reports becomes their number one responsibility.
The first issue (fear of an increased workload) can be solved by supporting kaizen through challenging people, setting up visual control, developing skills and looking for process improvement.
The second issue is one of respect: we need to acknowledge the middle managers’ lack of confidence in their ability to solve problems (particularly those involving other departments), train their people or support kaizen.
The lean response to this is the creation of an oobeya (a “war room”) where, first of all, we post the business’ main performance indicators on a wall: safety, quality, lead-time, cost, and so on. In a hospital setting, these indicators would typically include patient incidents, staff incidents, patient satisfaction, nosocomial infections, patient readmissions, length of stay, nursing time at patient bedside, and so on.
With the KPIs agreed upon (they’ll differ from place to place according to the overall challenge of the organization), the leader can create a university: every week, a member of the management team will present a PDCA report to the rest of the team on how a small, specific problem relating to a general indicator was solved:
If these “university” presentations occur regularly, managers will gain confidence in their ability to solve problems, to discuss these with their colleagues, and to train their own direct reports in a similar way.
Beyond the need for regularity and persistence, there are two tips we can take from Toyota here:
This second element of the “go and see” workplace practice is essential to move forward: you cannot do kaizen without respect, and you cannot show respect without kaizen. Hopping on one foot will eventually lead you to stumble.
We saw the effectiveness of this approach during our visit to Toyota’s South African plant, where an A3 sheet clearly showed the various steps of the value chain, as well as:
This simple A3 document summarized the whole progress of one line in a specific, concise, step-by-step way and described the path taken, not just the results achieved. Both the journey and the outcome matter equally.
Given the level of pressure and reliance placed on leaders, formulating any standard work for them might sound over-simplistic. Leaders must manage hearts, minds and hands. They must deal with politics as skillfully as they must solve technical problems. They must consider every person and analyze every situation as unique.
However, we believe there are some specific skills that leaders can learn to deepen their understanding of lean management, to change others by changing themselves through daily practices, and to transform their organizations. As the African proverb goes: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. “Go and see” practices and problem solving are specific skills we can use to go far, together.
Michael Ballé is co-founder of the Institut Lean France. An associate researcher at Telecom ParisTech, he holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. Michael is a best-selling author and an engaging speaker, and managing partner of ESG Consultants. He also works as a lean executive coach in various fields, from manufacturing to engineering, services to healthcare.
Denise Bennett supports the lean transformation effort at City of Melbourne. Denise has a nursing background and first learned about lean while in healthcare. She was one of the team at Flinders Medical Centre, Adelaide, the hospital that pioneered the application of lean in Australia, transforming the way patient care was delivered. Denise went on to help many other health services across the world, improve patient flow and the quality of care through a lean thinking. Over the past five years she has translated what she learned in healthcare into a local government setting. Denise was a founding member of the Australasian Lean Healthcare Network and continues to serve on the executive board. She is also a faculty member of Lean Enterprise Australia and for the past two years she has convened the annual Lean Thinking and Practice Summit.
After qualifying as a civil engineer, Peter Handlinger worked in the coastal engineering field. Thereafter he moved on to the multidisciplinary project management environment within the petrochemical industry. It was here that his appreciation of the interaction between people and machinery was developed. Subsequent to this Peter started his career with Toyota South Africa as the Group Training Manager. He stayed with the company for over 14 years, ultimately assuming the position of General Manager of Production Control & Logistics. Today Peter works as an executive and manager coach, after founding his own company, Turnstone, in 2008.