Are People Getting Lost in the Process of Lean Management?

“Many manufacturers rely on long-tenured managers who gained their supervisory skills through years of ‘on the job’ experience.  As this generation retires, the position is typically filled by a promotion of a high performing team member.  However, productivity on the shop floor does not translate to effective managerial skills.  For many people – both the newly promoted person AND the team members, this experience is difficult, draining, and disappointing.  This is understandable since no specific training of any kind in leader effectiveness was provided.  No manufacturer would consider putting a worker on a piece of expensive equipment without proper training.  The risk of damage is just too high.  Yet, they often put their most valuable resource (their people) in the hands of an unskilled and inexperienced leader where the risk of damage is much higher and much more costly.”

– Dr. Jane T. Wilson, Growth Services, L.E.T. Trainer, MassMEP

You may be initially surprised to learn that the principles of Lean Manufacturing—a business improvement methodology dedicated to rooting out waste and inefficiencies and improving customer and employee satisfaction—long ago left the narrow world of factory floors and assembly lines.

Today, you’ll find Lean consultants and practitioners engaged in efforts to eliminate waste and inefficiencies across nearly every industry, including those that (strictly speaking) don’t manufacture anything at all. Military contractors, hospitals, and governments are working with Lean consultants and practitioners today to find and eliminate hidden sources of waste and cost.

People as Drivers of Process

People Lean Management

In organizations that don’t manufacture widgets and gadgets, the process IS the people. I know because for several years I had a job that was dedicated to process improvement in a health care setting. We didn’t call it that—not specifically—but we worked with care providers to help them understand the key drivers of their patient satisfaction scores on hospital units, then to make incremental improvements on factors known to push the overall score higher: Concrete displays of courtesy and respect; regular communication; rapid response to call lights. All seemed to be simple interventions, but once we drilled deeper, none were easy.

Initially, the problem sounds straightforward: A hospital call light should be answered within a couple of minutes, right? That’s what we all see on TV. That’s a patient’s expectation. But on the other side of the equation—on the process side—if one nurse and one CNA are assigned four patients per shift, simple math tells us two of those patients won’t have a dedicated staff member available for call light responses during busy times like toileting, bathing, or meals. This one “simple” issue took months of analysis and troubleshooting to address, and then we started all over again with the next issue.

It wasn’t as simple as leaders telling staff “answer the call lights more quickly.” Such a “simple” top-down edict that failed to take into account the experience and knowledge of the front-line staff would have been counterproductive and potentially led to worse outcomes in other areas (demotivated staff under greater pressure is less likely to treat patients with empathy, for example).

Preparing for Lean Means Preparing Your People for the Responsibility of Joint Decision-Making

Undertaking the Herculean task of transforming an organization using Lean Management principles is not for the faint of heart. Most organizations using Lean, Six Sigma, or other such structured process improvement methodologies go into the endeavor with eyes wide open, knowing that the vast majority of Lean implementations—up to 80 percent—will ultimately fail.

The potential rewards, however, can be extraordinary. And the pivotal variable in organizations isn’t process. Process is the easy part.

People constitute the least predictable, least stable, most error-prone, riskiest chokepoints and vulnerabilities in most business processes precisely because they are not machines. We cannot calibrate them, lock them down, check them off the list, and walk away. We cannot set their dials and forget about them. They don’t act the same way one day as they do the next. They are the most complicated and confounding parts of any business system (the Behavior Window tells us this). And that goes for leaders as well as the people they lead.

Massive organizational change efforts rise and fall on effective leadership. It’s no wonder, then, that Respect for People is a foundational tenet of Lean Management as a management philosophy, taken straight from the manufacturing floor of Toyota, where the Lean philosophy was born.

In this regard, Lean’s foundational principles are remarkably aligned with Dr. Thomas Gordon’s original model of Group-Centered Leadership (the title of his first book, published in 1955). Lean and L.E.T. cross-pollinate and reinforce each other —in fact, I was recently stunned to find a 2007 eLetter from one of the luminaries in the field of Lean that nearly mirrors Dr. Gordon’s earliest principles of group problem-solving, later formalized as L.E.T.

See what you think:

Dr. Thomas Gordon on the origins of the Gordon Model, describing his original 1955 version of L.E.T., Group-Centered Leadership and Administration

The “wisdom of the group,” my phrase to describe the creative resources of group members.

A four-step problem-solving process I developed to help groups tackle problems more systematically and effectively:

1. Recognizing and defining the problem
2. Diagnosing the problem
3. Making the decision
4. Accepting and carrying out the decision

The leader’s limits and group’s “area of freedom,” I represented in a diagram. My consulting work taught me that leaders have limited areas of freedom beyond which they are not authorized to let their group make certain action decisions.

Mr. Jim Womack, Lean Enterprise Institute, Dec. 20, 2007:

When in recent years Toyota made respect for people one of the pillars of the Toyota Way I decided I should ask the best Toyota managers how they show respect for people.

Managers begin by asking employees what the problem is with the way their work is currently being done. Next they challenge the employees’ answer and enter into a dialogue about what the real problem is. (It’s rarely the problem showing on the surface.)

Then they ask what is causing this problem and enter into another dialogue about its root causes…

Then they ask what should be done about the problem and ask employees why they have proposed one solution instead of another. (This generally requires considering a range of solutions and collecting more evidence.)

Then they ask how they – manager and employees – will know when the problem has been solved, and engage one more time in dialogue on the best indicator.

Finally, after agreement is reached on the most appropriate measure of success, the employees set out to implement the solution.

Over time I’ve come to realize that this problem solving process is actually the highest form of respect. The manager is saying to the employees that the manager can’t solve the problem alone, because the manager isn’t close enough to the problem to know the facts. He or she truly respects the employees’ knowledge and their dedication to finding the best answer. But the employees can’t solve the problem alone either because they are often too close to the problem to see its context and they may refrain from asking tough questions about their own work. Only by showing mutual respect – each for the other and for each other’s role – is it possible to solve problems, make work more satisfying, and move organizational performance to an ever higher level. 

So, when it made “Respect People” an integral part of Lean Management Toyota adopted and implemented the best practices of group decision-making—listening, openness, and trust—which Dr. Gordon already knew lay at the heart of effective leadership. And this critical aspect of Lean is one that is gaining more and more attention in the Lean field in recent years. Lean is not a top-down strategy—and sadly, if it is approached as one, it is likely to become one of the bones littering the 80% failure landscape.

Preparing those unpredictable, vulnerable, incredibly valuable human resources for a Lean journey ahead is an investment worth considering before a Lean engagement. Learn more about Leader Effectiveness Training.

Learn more about L.E.T.