Why does Lean fail in some organisations and not others? The simple answer is Leadership. Leadership can make or break a Lean programme. Let’s look at some of the common pitfalls and how to avoid them.
- Remember, Leadership is exactly that, Leadership. It cannot be delegated to someone else.
One of the very basic points about Lean that many organisations miss is it will require people to think and perform differently. When asking an organisation to change, Leaders, at all levels, will need to change with it. They will need to become ‘active teachers’.
Singular, clear directions need to be set and communicated from the top down. The message needs to be understood by all heads of departments and more importantly, they need to believe in it. The senior team needs to be “Engaged”, this means that process improvement activities are in their schedules and that they turn up and attend. It should not be seen as an initiative that is assigned to others.
- Don’t forget Middle Management.
Middle managers are notoriously difficult to get on board. They often struggle to see the big picture when faced with both upward and downward pressures. This layer of the structure requires extra attention, because without their support it will be incredibly hard to get Lean thinking embedded into the organisation. They are the ones that talk to the workforce on a day to day basis. They are the ones that turn instructions into actions.
Take time to get the Middle managers on board. Help develop their Leadership skills and help them to understand the need for the Lean approach in their part of the business. If leaders lead, middle managers will follow and the cultural shift will be easier.
- Leadership styles are different in a Lean organisation.
Remember, Lean is not only a physical change tool, but also a cultural change model. So by default this means that Leadership styles have to change. Lean Leadership requires a bias for action, a proactive culture. Out goes silo mentality and in comes strong teamwork. In a strong Lean organisation, teams have clear aligned targets and team leaders are expected to measure their own success against those targets. If they are missing them, then they take actions to improve the process in question.
This requires a very different set of leadership skills to what you would expect in a more traditional ‘reactive’ organisation. Leaders will need to be trained and mentored in this new way of thinking. Invest the time and effort and Lean thinking will thrive.
- When there is a problem, go to the ‘Gemba’.
The ‘Gemba’ is where the actual work is done. Lean Leaders always observe the actual processes as they are performed, and talk to the people who perform them. They are the ones that know the finer details of how a process is performed and in many cases know the answer to the issue. If they do not know the answer then they always have information that will help solve the problem. In a Lean organisation issues are not solved on a spreadsheet or in a meeting room.
Genchi gembutsu – go and see the actual event
- Communicate, communicate and then communicate again.
Introducing a new initiative like Lean, changing the way people are expected to work is a big undertaking. People are naturally nervous of change and the reasons for it. Make sure that communication is a two way process and listen. As Leaders ensure you over-communicate to offset the natural fear and build confidence.
- Learning by doing
Do not fall into the trap of thinking Lean is just another training exercise and that it’s introduction can be achieved by hiring a bunch of consultants to run one day classroom training courses. From a practical stand point most improvement activity is accomplished by using the simple tools from the Lean toolkit. Focus on training people in the discipline of seeing problems from a customer perspective and address them head-on.
The best way by far to get Lean embedded into an organisation is for the Leadership to let people try things. This of course needs to be done in a controlled manner without risk to the business. But sometimes Leaders need to back off and let people try for themselves. Learning by doing promotes a sense of inclusion, ownership and trust. If you do not try, you will not learn.
Quite often, Senior Leadership teams find this incredibly hard to do. This is because it involves letting go of some levels of control and devolving them downwards. But the benefits in adopting this approach far outweigh the negatives. I call this “freedom within a framework”