Lean thinking has become accepted across manufacturers in all industries as an essential enabler for continuous improvement. Positive, and sometimes spectacular, results through lean initiatives in the short term are commonplace, but more elusive is the achievement of sustainable improvement on the road to true enterprise excellence.
This is because most organisations continue to focus on the use of lean tools and systems and lose sight of the prime purpose – the why? With the tools-based approach, the means becomes the ends. Even those implementing lean management techniques such as strategy deployment, A3 problem-solving and standard work underachieve against their goals because they remain too focused on the tools themselves. Consequently most businesses fail to realise the full return on their lean training investments.
Tools are important, but sustainable performance improvement requires organisational behaviour change which is leader-led. Successful Lean leaders recognise this and consistently exhibit specific attributes, which enable culture transformation. They act as role models and are grounded in guiding principles such as leading with humility, constancy of purpose, seeking perfection and respecting every individual. They also remain doggedly determined and laser-focused on the goal.
At a practical level, lean leaders assume the role of problem-solver. This means directly observing the actual situation by “going to the gemba”, where lean leaders ask about the issue, seek the root cause and show respect for subordinates and colleagues by asking tough questions until good answers emerge. This is a meaningful and structured conversation that engages employees and encourages their maximum abilities in pursuit of the best currently known countermeasures.
Lean leaders also recognise that problems should be solved at the lowest level possible in the organisation, which implies providing the appropriate support beyond the initial training (including coaching, recognition, etc.), and promoting experimentation through Plan, Do, Check, Act in order to establish a team-based, daily, kaizen culture.
This is all enabled and aligned by developing a strong connection between strategy deployment and visual management, and then relentlessly engaging the whole organisation in identifying and solving new problems to close the gaps. When these new behaviours are combined with the right lean tools and systems, amazing results are possible.
By Chris Merriman, principal consultant, The Manufacturing Institute