Does “management” still mean anything in this century?
Companies today realize they need to change their mechanistic, make-the-numbers management, but many struggle to find practical ways to humanize their management styles without loosing hard-nosed productivity. Yet, in a fast changing society all agree that employee engagement and creativity are the keys to satisfied customers–and therefore, profits.
Throughout the latter part of the past century, one company has explored a different path. Toyota a small, struggling, automaker in the 1950s discovered a different route to growth based on what Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz describes as seeking dynamic gains rather than static efficiencies.
Toyota grounded its management on learning and, over the years, developed a continuous on-the-job learning method based on two pillars: continuous improvement–continuously challenging oneself and learning by continuous small steps–and respect–making our best efforts to understand the obstacles each person encounters, supporting their development and making the best possible use of their abilities. We refer to this as “lean thinking.”
Lean thinking essentially means constantly looking for ways to increase customer value by decreasing waste caused to the customer by our own processes. It means constantly looking for ways employees can increase the value they contribute by eliminating wasteful work imposed on them by operational systems. Lean is a business strategy based on learning how to improve performance rather than manage the numbers, and it cannot be done to people–it can only succeed by working with people.
Consequently, managers adopting lean thinking must also think seriously about their own management practice: continuous improvement can only happen when the relationship between manager and employee is one of respect.
The question asked should not simply be “how do I run my department efficiently?” but “how do I show respect to every one of my staff?”
From the employee’s perspective, what would it mean to be managed with respect in the lean thinking sense? As a manager, you respect me if you:
No one comes to work to get hurt or bullied, and security (physical safety and psychological peace of mind) are the first requirement to mutual trust.
Understanding customer preferences in today’s chaotic business world can take forever unless one is tutored to understand the difference between a good job and a poor one both from the ultimate consumer’s point of view and for the next person in the process. This also means delving deep into the process to understand at any step the difference between OK and not-OK and moving with confidence from one work step to the next.
Micromanagement is the death of the soul and is the knee-jerk reflex of many middle managers in a crisis. Teaching staff how to continuously improve in order to do a better job also means letting them get on with what they do know how to do without correcting their decisions or controlling their every step.
In lean thinking, teamwork is the individual skill to solve problems across organizational boundaries. A key job for any manager is to introduce the worker to knowledgeable experts in the firm and other power players, in order to help them grow their own network.
Any organization has its quirks and employees tend to assume that how their department works reflects how the whole functions. Many mistakes or mishaps can be avoided simply by communicating better about the way the company works in its own specific ways.
Every day brings its share of grief whether professional or personal and it’s firmly the manager’s job to help employees overcome obstacles that hold them back by working through the problem with them and help them seek countermeasures, rather than dismiss, downplay or shoot the messenger. People have a right to succeed, not an obligation.
At times where external change is much faster than internal change can ever hope to be, goal posts change all the time. A specific aspect of lean thinking is learning to visual the goals so that every one can agree on targets, gaps and the problems that need to be resolved individually and together.
Many work situations are more complex than minimal job requirement and indeed expertise develops when one learns to solve work issues in varied situations, both technical and organizational. The basic lean thinking method of taking care of an employee’s development is to teach them to solve on-the-job problems one at a time so that they get a deeper understanding of both their job and how the organization is set up.
A fundamental goal of lean thinking is to develop every one to the fullest of their ability. Managers are evaluated by both their ability to achieve objectives and to support their staff in furthering their career path within the company. This means reviewing regularly with the person what next step she would like to take and how to help her do so.
Initiative is the ultimate proof of engagement and recognizing an employee’s suggestion the ultimate proof of respect. Organizations tend to become so overwhelming that employees need permission for taking any initiative. Middle-managers must learn to ask the right questions and to support the right kind of thinking so that their staff grow more confident about their ability to do and thus feel more responsible towards their customers than worried about overstepping organizational lines.
—Daniel Jones is co-author of the seminal books The Machine that Changed the World, Lean Thinking and Lean Solutions and co-founder of the Lean movement. He is founding chair of The Lean Enterprise Academy.