You’re given a new job—it’s a step up, but it’s challenging. You meet the team, and hear their take. You pore over the numbers. You tackle urgent problems.
And then it blows up in your face. Customers keep walking out. People are unhappy. Bosses are impatient. Rest assured, we’ve all been there. But over the years, we've discovered another way of tackling new things: the lean way.
Lean is a heartfelt commitment to completely eliminate waste from work. The biggest waste being failed relationships and dumb decisions, lean isn't about slash and burn cost reduction, it's about creating a kinder, wiser work environment where every person has something to say about how work is done and how it could be done better—with less waste—for themselves, our customers, and our colleagues. How do we tackle a new situation in a lean way?
Right away, before we get dragged into the fire-fighting (which will unavoidably happen). We take a walk to visit a few customers, internal and final, to meet the people who do the value-adding work and to understand our partners and suppliers. We take a walk to see things firsthand, for ourselves. This doesn’t mean we ignore the data, but that we complement the data with facts—what the people who do the work actually think about the work.
This is a disciplined walk. We don’t go there to immediately reinvent and redesign how everything should work. We go there with the specific aim of trying to imagine how we could get what is there to work better, before changing it:
- How could safety be better?
- What would make customers happier?
- Are there specific points where we could be more flexible?
- What would make us more productive?
- Is there any way to obviously reduce costs?
We are not looking for things to fix. We are looking for a way to formulate clear problems so that the people themselves can work on fixes. By identifying a few improvement projects right away and delegating the leadership of these projects to staff members, you’re giving a strong message that you’re not going to run this place against them, but with them. You’re also setting up a natural platform to see who’s up to scratch. And you’ve created a natural barrier to protect you from being consumed by the necessary fire-fighting and contract management.
Most people have never completed an improvement project by themselves and, at first, they will be rather lost, feeling the time would be better spent on doing the job rather than thinking about it. But we’re playing a longer game here—we’re not aiming for perfect solutions but for engagement and teamwork. We hope to build better conditions to avoid lighting fires in the first place. Indeed, we will likely find out that the department creates its own misery and that many of the problems originated in the day-to-day way work is carried out.
How can we help the project leaders steer their teams? Here are the three main lean tricks:
1. What are the goals and how can we help to reach them? Is there a simple way to measure this? Like players on the football pitch, the team needs a clear, obvious way to count the goals and mark the fouls. The first step is to teach the project leaders to set up a score sheet that reflects customer satisfaction and to list screw-ups with customers one by one.
2. How does the work flow and where are the obvious flow breaks? Getting work to flow is easily understandable by all, and flow breaks can be easily spotted by piles on desks, waiting queues or inventory. Each project group can draw how the rivulets of work make a river, and where are the boulders in this river which disrupt the seamless flow of work. Improving flow always involves solving internal problems.
3. Measure progress by small improvements. Each problem solved changes the situation, both humanly and in the work flow. So rather than set up a master plan, ask the project teams to work on one obvious issue after the next. Get two, three, or four people to work hard on individual problems and watch them learn (or spot those who find learning especially difficult). Shift from brainstorm to trystorm.
Does that mean we will never tackle larger issues? On the contrary. As you observe how each project progresses and what obstacles they come across, your own mental picture of what is really wrong with the situation will clarify itself in a fit-to-fact firsthand manner. As the larger challenges become clearer, so do also larger changes. But no process can be changed without the engagement and competence of the people that comprise it. By supporting teams in step-by-step improvement you are really supporting the learning-curves of key individuals and watching for spillover opportunities: areas where one person’s learning has a leveraged effect on the rest of the operation. Step-by-step improvement is the key to build both the competency and the goodwill you’ll require to make larger changes with your teams, not against them.
The knack is to tackle urgent situations in ways that will improve the long term as well. The urgency is about paying immediate attention about what really matters: developing people in order to develop business. Rather than jumping in to take direct control of everything and use people as an extra pair of arms, the lean way is to jump in and take immediate control of people’s ability to learn and to cooperate. As they learn, you learn. As your teams solve local problems, you will discover new opportunities for innovation, more intense collaboration, and increased participation that will make the department not just a good place to work, but a great one. Employee satisfaction is the key to customer satisfaction and each person’s fulfillment is the key to hitting those numbers sustainably. As they grow, you grow.