Get Specific

A couple of days ago I had an interesting session with an improvement team in a fairly large company. They have been working on this for almost 10 years, and believe that while they have made some spot progress, they are clear that they have spent a lot of money but not yet established what they call a “lean culture.” Their implied question was “How do we get there?”

My question was “When you say ‘a lean culture,’ exactly what are you thinking about?”

What do people do? How do they behave?

“People find and eliminate waste every day.”

OK, so if they were doing that, what would you see if you watched?

There was a bit of a struggle to articulate an answer.

I see this all of the time. We rely on the jargon or general statements to define the objective, without really digging down the next couple of layers and getting clear with ourselves about what the jargon means to us. This is especially the case when we are talking about the people side of the system.

But the people are the system. They are the ones who are in there every single day making it all happen. It is people who do all of the thinking.

Consider these steps:

  • Define Value.
  • Map your value streams.
  • Establish flow.
  • Pull the value through the value stream.
  • Seek perfection.

This is the implementation sequence from Lean Thinking by Womack, Jones and Roos, that has been the guideline for a generation+ of practitioners.

Learning to See taught that generation (and is teaching this one) to establish a current-state map of the value stream, and then a design the future state to implement as flow is established. The follow-on workbooks focused on establishing flow and pull, and did it very well.

While not the only way to go about this, it does work for most processes to establish flow in materials and information.

But what do people do every day to drive continuous improvement, and how are those efforts organized, harnessed, and captured to put the results where they can truly benefit customers and the business?

Here are some things to think about.

What exactly is the target condition for your organization? Can you describe what it will look like? Can you describe it in terms of what people experience, and do, every day?

When your people go home to their families and share what they did at work today, what will they talk about? And I don’t just mean the engineers and managers. What will the front-line value-creating people remember from the workday?

How will they talk about problems?

If your target future state now includes changes in how people work, ask yourself more questions.

When, exactly, are they going to do these things you described? By “when” I mean what time, starting when, ending when.

What, exactly, do they do when they encounter a problem during production?

How, exactly, do you expect the organization to respond to that problem? Who, exactly, is responsible to work through the issue and get things back on track? How long do they have to do it? If the problem is outside their scope, what is supposed to happen? How, exactly, does additional support get involved?

If these new activities involve new skills, when and how, exactly, are people supposed to learn them and practice them to get better at it? Who is supposed to teach them, when, where, and how? How will you verify that the new skills are being used, and are having the effect you intend?

“If we do this, what will happen?”

And then what? And then what?

Think it through.

The “people” future state is far more important than future state of the material and information flow.

4 Replies to “Get Specific”

  1. Great post….which serves as an outline for coaching people…just when they think they have a problem solved, we can ask simple, hard quesitons to make them test their assumptions and the real problem.


  2. Mark:

    Reading what you wrote was very painful for me. There are so many questions here I could not answer.

    Yesterday I had an encounter with an employee who was saying that, “you lean guys never bother to ask us workers what is really going on before you start making changes”. That hurt me.

    I’m sitting here in my chair thinking I usually don’t move or get up until, I feel motivated to do so, or I feel enough pain that it makes me move. Your words always motivate me. This time your words were painful.

    But I guess if I get up and do something because I’m motivated or I’m in pain it really appears to others to be the same thing . The people that work here at my company see me moving, asking questions, trying to help and making a little progress.

    In the next few weeks I will try to answer all the questions you have proposed.

    Thank you for your words of wisdom.

  3. Mark, I was very lucky taking part in the session you wrote about. And I am very happy I was there, able to listen to your stories, advice and questions.
    For me the session made clear that although we are working on continuous improvement together with the people working all the levels of our company, I stop too quickly asking the why’s and what’s. Leaving probably the real problems undiscovered and at the same time missing the chance in getting (or creating) commitment.
    After reading your post I realized we are (probably) not aiming for being a lean company. It feels like our top management introduced lean as a tool for cost reduction.
    Your questions are helping me getting to the subject that is really making the difference: the people.
    I am going to learn and understand the real essence of your questions and make them my own. Like a mantra.
    It was an honor meeting you.

    1. Edwin –
      Thank you for your comment and kind words, and my thanks to you and your company for taking the time out of their busy days to meet with me.

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