Lean thinking

Organizations generally adopt Lean to move the needle on specific indicators. They want to be more productive, improve the health of the organization, or increase revenue.

But the Lean concept isn’t simply about improving metrics; it is about changing the culture. And changing the culture begins with leadership. Everyone from the top down needs to begin re-framing the work, enacting the values, and striving for perfection.

Lean leadership is about mentoring, embodying, and inspiring Lean thinking and Lean values throughout your organization.

3 Foundations of Lean Thinking

Purpose Process People

1) Purpose

Since the goal of Lean management is to deliver value to the customer, everyone needs a clear understanding of what that value is and how it is measured.

Once a value is defined, everyone can begin working together with the purpose of delivering that value as efficiently as possible. Uniting teams with a shared and clearly defined purpose is integral to leading a Lean organization.

2) Process

Lean methods focus tirelessly on process improvement to remove waste and create value.

Lean leaders believe that flawed processes reduce value and detract from their purpose, so they empower everyone to identify and work to correct problems and improve processes.

3) People

Lean organizations are not led from the top down. Leaders strive to create the conditions for employees to be their most successful and efficient, and actively observe, ask questions, and elicit input toward that goal.

They foster engagement and mentor employees toward continuous improvement. Lean companies are holistic, and success is the result of goals, attitudes, behaviors, and processes that are enacted by everyone, every day.

The Guiding Principles of Lean Leadership

The 5 principles of a Lean system guide the daily activities of every Lean leader. Those principles are:

1) Identify value

Value is defined by what the customer needs from a product and informed by their desires and expectations.

In an internal system, the “customer” can be another team or department that determines their requirements for value.

2) Map the value stream

Determine all the processes involved in delivering value to the customer from beginning to end.

At a high-level, mapping the value stream can be detailing the path of materials as they move through the design and are delivered in a product, identifying departments and processes.

Another way to look at the value stream is to map the flow of information through a department or organization. Mapping gives greater insight and understanding of business operations and is the first step in identifying waste.

3) Create flow

Work to move products, processes, or information through the value stream with no interruptions, delays, or bottlenecks.

Flow makes everything move in a tight sequence with high efficiency and little waste.

4) Establish pull

With a smooth flow, products can be delivered to the customer as needed. Using a “just in time” delivery model reduces excess inventory, over- or under-production, or unmet demand.

The benefit of pull is that everything is produced highly efficiently, exactly when needed, in the exact quantities required.

5) Seek perfection

Even with a very good process, further evaluation of the value stream always reveals waste or excess that could be eliminated, and flow can always be refined.

Lean systems are engaged in continuous process improvement, iterating these 5 principles over and over in the pursuit of perfection.

Inspiring Lean Change

Inspire Lean Thinking

As a Lean leader, motivating and empowering employees on this quest for perfection is crucial, but can be difficult. If employees lack engagement or motivation, inspiring them to change can be a difficult task.

However, Lean thinking is the most effective way to accomplish this task; top-down methods of improving productivity, increasing efficiency and setting new targets often only further demoralize frustrated employees.

Lean leadership seeks to re-engage employees by valuing their expertise and eliciting their solutions, rather than imposing them. Lean leaders move away from:

  • Providing answers;
  • Searching for immediate solutions;
  • Setting goals for subordinates;

… and move toward:

  • Asking the right questions;
  • Searching for root causes;
  • Uniting individual and business goals.

The process of leading an organization into Lean thinking needs to be done carefully, and with complete commitment and buy-in from the top-level leadership. The most effective way to enact Lean cultural change is:

Select one or more front-line teams and empower them to seek process improvements. They need the full support of leadership, including permission to fail. In some organizations, a single team is enough. But it may also be desirable to have 2-4 teams developing alternative processes and solutions.

Selecting these team members is important; the individuals should be people who excel at the work, have good interpersonal relationships with each other and at the company in general, and have a positive attitude toward growth and experimentation. These people will become the change ambassadors for other employees, so it’s important to choose them well.

Mentor the teams constantly. Use the coaching kata to support their thinking and their decisions, by asking the following questions of the team, and, occasionally, of individual team members:

  • What is the target condition?
  • What is the actual condition now?
  • What obstacles prevent you from reaching the target condition?
  • What is your next step?
  • When can we see what we have learned from taking that step?

1) Be transparent

The whole company should know and be invested in the exploration process being undertaken by the teams. If possible, the teams themselves should share their progress and their findings.

2) Draw conclusions from the teams’ findings and recommendations

If different teams have different process improvements, do you have the opportunity to try different methods? If not, what do their solutions have in common?

Does the new process create risks that the team is unaware of? Work with the team to formalize their innovation into a new process, and set some goals for what the anticipated results will be. Use the PDCA system here: Plan. Do. Check. Adjust.

3) Be transparent (always)

Share the new processes, along with the thinking and expectations, with the rest of the company.

Release the team back into production to begin teaching and mentoring the new process.

4) Actively mentor employees as they experience the change

Actively mentor team members

Ask questions and listen carefully, without bias, to their answers. If they don’t like the change, find out why without reacting defensively.

Use the coaching kata to help employees identify their own target conditions and make a plan to reach them.

5) Evaluate the results

If the changes are positive and represent progress, make them the new standard. If not, adjust the plan accordingly.

6) Be consistent

All too often organizations enact a new process, feel good about it, and then leadership turns its attention elsewhere.

Culture change is a long, slow process, and gains can quickly be lost without actively fostering and mentoring them.

7) Repeat

Use the value stream to identify more areas for improvement, and the PDCA method to seek continuous improvement.

If leadership continues to consistently model Lean thinking and Lean values, and employees see meaningful change and feel that their contributions are valued, the organization is well on its way to a cultural change.

Inspiring Lean Thinking

Lean thinking starts at the top, but also from the inside out. Leaders must cultivate an attitude of respect for others and humility within themselves. They use questions and mentoring to lead employees to discover and enact their own improvements, and support their decisions.

They serve employees by removing obstacles and promoting flow. Over time, these behaviors become learned and practiced by everyone on the team and everyone in the organization.

Lean systems are powerful ways to improve productivity, quality, and profits. But they cannot be simply adopted as quick fixes to target certain metrics; they must be fully adopted, committed to, and practiced daily by everyone in the organization.

A leader has the opportunity to inspire and foster these behaviors or undermine them. Adopting continuous improvement within yourself is the first step.

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