Beyond Lean: Building Sustainable Business and People Success through New Ways of Thinking

by Jamie Flinchbaugh, Lean Learning Center

Establish High Agreement of Both What and How

The principle of high agreement appears to have the biggest disconnect between current practice and the true intent of lean transformation. Most efforts of lean start with tools that begin to surface the principle of high agreement, tools like the 5S's or visual management. These tools can bring some level of improvement to your organization but they will not transform your culture. The underlying principle behind these tools is to establish a high degree of agreement of both the what of the organization as well as the how. This high agreement should exist whenever coordinated action is required. Therefore, for some activities, high agreement may be needed across the entire company, and in other situations, just two or three people.

The rest of the principle of high agreement calls out two specific categories: the what and the how. The what of the organization are the goals and objectives, and things like what markets we should pursue, what our costs must be to compete, what quality improvement opportunities need to be addressed. Without agreement of the what, an organization will work inconsistently and against itself. While not easy, the goal of getting agreement on the what has generated a great deal of attention, and there are more tools and techniques to support this part of the principle than could ever be consumed by one organization. Often missed, ignored and not understood is the value and challenge of getting high agreement on the how of the organization; specifically, how does the firm produce its results at the granular level of activities, connections and flows. Seeking high agreement of the how provides not just dramatic daily performance improvement, but is the key to making those improvements sustainable.

There are two elements to this principle:

Standardization is the foundation of continuous improvement; create high agreement and no ambiguity. Every improvement, every problem solved and every process changed must be standardized. If it isn't standardized, then you don't have high agreement on how things work. If you don't have high agreement about how things work, then you don't have a strong operating system. Are the standards so clear that anyone can identify any deviation as a problem? If not, then you have not reached a satisfactory level of standardization. Can you ask everyone to stand up, move to a different job, and succeed? If not, you are not done seeking high agreement. Standardization applies to everything from what rules the senior management team will use to make decisions to the pattern used to tighten down bolts during the assembly process; the principle applies to every how and what of the firm. Standardization is not just something you do. It is a continuous process of reaching a deeper and more detailed level of refinement. To make standards clear to everyone, you must do everything possible to make them visual so that you can walk into any process and instantly determine whether things are normal or abnormal. Without this, you will not have continuous improvement. Without continuous improvement, your firm will not be around for much longer.

Sustainable change happens only at the systems level -- lean is rules, not tools. Most organizations focus on events, waiting for things to happen; and then they react to those events as they surface, fighting fire after fire. Some people have learned to dig a little deeper and pay attention to patterns and be proactive. But being proactive is still just reacting in advance; you are still a victim to the conditions around you. Tools such as SPC help teams become proactive. Cultivating the system, however, is where the leverage lies. The system is the structure within the organization made up of the activities, connections and flows, as well as the mental models or ways of thinking. We must pay attention to the systems level and make system changes to make lasting change. This also means that improvements should happen with people operating in the system as they normally would, not by extracting them from the system to form a problem-solving team or task force. The existing system is where the problems and opportunities lie. You must build the capacity of the organization to solve its own problems. Only then will you have sustainable change. This is perhaps the hardest element to adopt because we are traditionally very good at and rewarded for fire fighting. We need to learn to be systems thinkers. Using tools such as the 5 Whys to solve problems forces us to dig deeper to a systems level, resulting in both more successful problem countermeasures and practice in becoming a systems thinker. Slowly, through repeated use of tools such as the 5 Whys along with the support of a coach, we can learn to think about the system that is in place and improve the system through rules and principles.

Systematic Problem-Solving

Every day, every person in your organization is solving problems. No one has the job title of "problem-solver" because it wouldn't make anyone unique. All day that is what we do. How we solve problems can make a huge difference in the overall performance and culture of the organization. Does your organization seek out problems and surface them without fear while utilizing a common way of thinking to improve the system of the organization? It is rare to receive an honest "yes" to this question, which is why we must reframe how we think about problem-solving. This does not mean we need new tools; the tools, as said many times, already work. It is the thinking and the context around the tools that makes a difference and why systemic problem solving is a crucial principle in lean systems thinking.

There are two elements to this principle:

Seek every problem as an opportunity to focus on the ideal state. Many people have advanced their careers by covering up problems, solving them without anyone knowing, or by waiting for problems to get so large that they require heroic leadership to lead the task force required to get through the crisis. None of these modes of problem solving are acceptable if you want to build a world-class organization. World-class requires teaching everyone to adopt the attitude that every problem is an opportunity. A problem is not just when bad products gets into the customers' hands. A problem is any gap between current reality and the ideal state, and there is always a gap. When someone says "no problem," then you have a big problem, because the gap is actually there; people just aren't recognizing the gap. Each of those problems, if addressed, is an opportunity to improve the company, build the organization and strengthen the flow-path that delivers value to the customer. Many things prevent people from taking the desired approach, such as a lack of emotional and professional safety that enables raising problems without fear of retribution. All barriers to adopting the desired attitude must be eradicated for a company to fully adopt the philosophy that every problem is an opportunity to continuously improve towards the ideal condition. We must redesign the system (or the activities, connections and flows of the firm) for problem detection and correction whether it is on the plant floor, the design office, or the chairperson's office.

Decision-making at the point of activity. This principle is the hardest for some people to adopt and the easiest to get wrong. The biggest problem is when people are given the authority to make decisions without any guidance or skills in how to make them. Without rules, high agreement about how things work and boundaries, people will make decisions their superiors don't support, and then the superiors will blame the individuals or the concept of pushing down decision-making for the consequences of those decisions. The response I often hear is "We tried that and it didn't work." They have no one to blame but themselves. This is the hardest principle for people to adopt because they have to give up power and control. There are two reasons this principle will strengthen the organization. First, no one person or team of people has enough time to solve all of the problems the organization may face and, so, we must engage everyone. Second, deeply understanding current reality is critical to effectively improving processes, and no one understands those processes like the people who have to deal with them all day long. Making decisions at the point of activity is not meant for the front-lines to solve all of the problems. If a problem exists between an internal supplier plant and its internal customer, then those responsible for that connection must be involved in solving that problem. That is the lowest level possible. Let's connect this principle to the principle of establishing high agreement. In order to make this principle work, we must carefully design how the decision-making and problem-solving processes will work, in addition to pushing decision-making and problem-solving to the lowest level possible.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and brings successful and varied experiences of lean transformation as both a practitioner and facilitator. Jamie was part of the development, training and implementation of the Chrysler Operating System, a widely-benchmarked lean change program spearheaded by Lean Learning Center partner Dennis Pawley. He most recently was at DTE Energy, parent company to Detroit Edison and MichCon, as a lean thought leader to help build the first lean program in a utility and to transform the operations, leadership and thinking of the utility industry towards a philosophy of lean systems. He is also a co-founder and director of Rev! Motorcycles, a start-up company that connects design and manufacturing to the customer to build-to-order powersports products such as off-road motorcycles. He also has a wide-range of operational experiences, including production, maintenance, product engineering, manufacturing engineering and production control. Most of this was experienced while at Chrysler Corporation and Harley-Davidson. While at Chrysler, Jamie was a major contributor to the design of the new Jeep Liberty plant in Toledo, Ohio, a major new asset for Chrysler and their first designed using lean concepts. Jamie can be contacted at 248-478-1480 or jamie@LeanLearningCenter.com

Other articles in this 5-part series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

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