Monthly Archive : November 2009
Over the last year on our Lean journey we have made considerable progress and learned a lot about how to effectively deploy standards and standard work across multiple teams and work sites. As an enterprise we have learned how to far more effectively plan then in the past. As a lean team we have gotten much better at preparing and leading improvement events that create a process that can be sustained. As a leadership group we have greatly reduced the variation in our management processes and greatly improved our capabilities to check on performance. Throughout this experience we have engaged the people that do the work in helping solve many of the organization’s bigger problems. Yet, most of what we have done has been management defined and has probably felt top down. For me the improvement system seems to be out of balance.
As we transition into this coming year we need to continue to get better at we have already put in place, but I am also hoping our focus on improving the management system shifts slightly. We need to focus on creating improvement systems that allow frontline teams to solve problems every single day that are important to them. Many teams have probably had their fill of management deployed standards and toolkits and they are ready to unleash some of their own creativity. It is time for the bottom up to balance out the top down.
I remember hearing a story once that Toyota has a robust bottom up suggestion system that has resulted in over five million improvements. I also heard that suggestions are never turned down. When a senior Toyota leader was asked how this was possible he replied that by the time a suggestion is made to the suggestion system it had already been implemented and the suggestion systems purpose was to recognize good work and share learning’s. Toyota was able to create this robust system by training every one of their managers how to effectively coach frontline teams in problem solving so that even when a bad idea was suggestion the manager could help the team member get to a positive place. Most profound is the Toyota leadership has been willing to trust that (and not try and control) those that are doing the work are in the best position to improve the work.
So what will it take for us to get a system like this in place within our organization? Most importantly, senior leaders need to realize how important it is to put this type of system in place so they are willing to make the investment. This importance is not just because of the impact of all of the small improvements that might be generated (which can be profound), but also because of the impact a system has on the willingness of a team to improve in general. As people are allowed to solve their own problems they are much more willing to solve others. This is true for sustainability as well. If the organization wants to sustain the transformational improvements it makes it needs to effectively transition the ownership over to those that do the work every day. How better then to allow people the freedom to improve those processes?
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During my time back east last week I had a chance to have several long discussions with the Japanese Sensei. It was fun to hear the stories of Toyota and the hundreds of transformations that he had participated in over the years. It was also fun to talk about the transformation of healthcare, a subject he had a lot of interest in. Most interesting of all for me was the opportunity for me to ask a lot of questions about his views on the role of management. Something that is interchangeable across all industries.
Probably the biggest takeaway for me from these discussions as well as the kaizen experience was a much deeper understanding of standard work and in particular the role of management in relation to standard work. I now truly get why it is the foundation of continuous improvement. Several time during the week the Sensei asked “who is responsible for standard work?” The first time he asked this question I thought, well this is easy and was quick to answer (something I figured out was not a good idea after the first day) that the frontline workers are responsible for standard work. Everyone knows that those that do the work are the ones responsible for the work!
The Sensei quickly corrected me and said that it was management that was responsible for standard work. At first this confused me, because it was counter to everything I had learned. Throughout the week I began to understand why. The reason like many of the Japanese teaching is very simple, but sometime hard to see. Overall, the job of management is to identify abnormalities within the process and remove them. This is the heart of continuous improvement. Without abnormalities there would be no need for management, everything would go as planned. By its very definition in order to have an abnormality you must have a normal and in Lean this is why we put in place standard work. Management needs to take responsibility for working with their teams to define standard work and creating a best practice. By owning this process they learn to quickly see when things are happening as planned or when things are deviating from the norm (abnormality). Thus they know when a problem occurs and they know when a new best practice has emerged.
This lesson is so counter to traditional management where the practice of being content free is common practice. I cringe whenever I hear a manager say “I don’t need to know what my people do, I just need to hire good people and turn them loose.” Returning to work I am even more committed to changing how we manage. It has helped me focus on coaching the managers I work with that they must not only understand their own management processes, but also the content of the processes that the people that work for them. That is the only way they will know when an abnormality has occurred. That is the only way they can help add real value!
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I had an amazing opportunity this last week to travel back east and participate in a Kazien event at a very advanced Lean manufacturing organization. Over the next couple of weeks many of my blog posting will share my reflections from this time away. The company is managed by several former Wiremold leaders. The event was supported by a Japanese consultant that I was able to learn a tremendous amount from. Over the week we improved throughput and productivity at a rate I would never have believed possible on processes that had been through multiple Kazien. Within the factory there were a total of six events run at the same time including rapid improvement events, Value stream events and 3P. The spirit of improvement was thriving within the workforce and each day the frontline team came to work committed to testing new ideas and improving their processes.
What was amazing to me was how much is the same between Lean in manufacturing and Lean in healthcare. Everything improvement my team made during the week I could easily translate into actions we could (and will!) take in improving our processes at Group Health. This experience only further confirmed for me that the success of an organization driving a Lean strategy is not dependent on the content of the work, but instead on the commitment and capability of leadership. Over the last eight years the senior leadership of this company had not wavered once in their commitment to a Lean. They had not only transformed the factory floor, but also their support departments, supply chain relationships as well as their partnerships with customers. It was clear this was not process improvement at work, but instead a powerful business strategy focused on operational excellence.
The management system they had created to support this strategy and drive engagement in their workforce was very effective. Performance and accountability was transparent and clear to everyone whether it was on the shop floor, across departments, at the factory level or across the dozens of factories in the system. At each level standard work was in place and management knew that it was their accountability to manage abnormalities from standard. Additionally, they had put in place profit sharing, thrown out traditional accounting, built hands on leadership development tracks, set up robust redeployment processes, etc. All of these changes had not happened over night, but over years of progress and problem solving. The result of this system is a relentless focus on kaizen across all team and at all levels.
Most impressive to me of all was the level of engagement and ownership at the local level. The frontline team members have difficult and labor intensive jobs. Throughout the event they challenged each other, challenged management and challenged every single cost. Everyone was committed to using their minds over spending money. Each of them had a story about how the light went off for them with Lean often during their 9th or 10 kaizen (several had participated in over 30!). Many told me it took them five or six years to see the benefits of Lean. Not one complained about the Lean system or management. Every one of them said that Lean was the right work and good not only for the company, but them. They had seen the results.
There are many lessons learned from this visit that I will apply to my work and hopefully influence and teach others. What is most exciting is seeing what is possible if you stay the course and not compromise on the principles.
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