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deming, improvement, leadership, lean, management, transformation

Is Assessing Lean Wasteful?

The most important things cannot be measured.” – W. Edwards Deming  

The other day, I was asked my opinion about assessments to measure an organization’s progress on a lean journey.   Although I generally don’t use assessments, I really hadn’t given the subject much thought before our discussion.

The idea behind a lean assessment is to identify the gap between the current state of the organization and where it will be when it is “fully lean.”  Although it should make perfect sense to assess the current state to better understand the gaps and whether or not the deployment is progressing, I have never seen assessments result in any real value for an organization.

Organizational transformation is a complex undertaking, and attempting to improve the process by formally assessing progress can actually drive the process off track.  When using an assessment to gage progress, the focus can easily become the score rather than true culture change.  Also, attempting to objectively measure change by assigning a number or score to the effort is still very subjective.

Some of the problems I’ve encountered in the past when using an assessment tool to gage and drive progress toward a lean transformation include the following:

1.  Disintegration with the Business  

Assessing lean separately from the business can strengthen the belief that it is another flavor-of-the-month initiative that has nothing to do with actual business results.  Companies exist to serve customers, and if it is not absolutely clear that the objective of pursuing lean is to help do it better (more safely, with better quality, and lower costs), it doesn’t matter what the assessment is showing; the effort will fail.

The real assessment occurs during the reflection of business results and target conditions during the annual planning process.  Creating an effective annual plan requires developing an understanding of the reasons for the gaps between what the organization tries to accomplish and what it actually accomplishes.  Besides the fact that this process is itself a lean effort, taking action to close the gaps can be used to further drive lean behaviors and systems.  Developing a plan that fails to address the big issues, attempts to take on too many priorities, or is ignored throughout the year shows a problem with the lean deployment – and you don’t need an assessment to show it.

Whether or not the effort is referred to as “lean” does not matter – people will see that it as a way to improve business results and be much more likely to join the effort.

2.  Subjectivity   

Regardless of how clear the assessment questions or elements appear to be, the process is still subjective.  Attempting to increase the clarity of assessment questions generally requires additional effort, training, and time, and you have to ask if this is really where you want your lean resources to spend time. 

Another issue with the subjectivity of assessments shows up when people are held accountable for the rating number or grade from the process.  When assessment scores are used for performance reviews or bonuses, the focus becomes the score rather than the application of lean thinking to improve performance.  And arguments around the scores is nothing but waste. 

3.  There is no End 

Deploying lean is like climbing a mountain that has no peak.  Since there is no end to the journey, there is no way to clearly define the target.  If a team scores a 5 out of 5 in kaizen activity, for example, does it mean that they have no room to improve?  This type of thinking is the complete opposite of what a lean transformation is trying to accomplish.

4.  Change Requires Dealing with People 

Building sustained success with lean requires continual coaching, developing, and stretching of people.  Changing the way leaders and team members think is critical to the process and unfortunately there is no set formula for change.  Besides the fact that people learn at different rates, each team member will have different levers for transformation, and what is successful with one will not necessarily work with another.  Because of this, it is not possible to standardize the change process.  Successful organizational transformation requires an understanding of W. Edwards Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge.  One of the four elements of profound knowledge is psychology.  Leading a lean transformation requires an understanding of people – how they think, how they learn, and what motivates them to continually improve.  Attempting to standardize the process by tying it to an assessment ignores this and relying on the tool to drive change.  

5.  It’s Still About Gemba

Assessment processes often turn into office exercises where an auditor meets with a supervisor or manager in an office to discuss the area being assessed.  Even if the assessment is conducted in the actual workplace, it is generally nothing more than a snapshot of how things are working at a specific point in time.  Afterwards, some type of report is written that may or may not be read by the organization’s leaders.  Even if a leader reads the assessment report, it is not possible to develop the level of understanding needed to lead the change without regularly going to where the work is done.  Assessments shifts leadership from a face-to-face coaching and development process to one of judging and grading – definitely not a lean leader behavior.

In the end, it’s important to remember that the effort is about continually improving toward perfection rather than “adopting lean.”  Using an assessment to gage progress on the journey can easily shift the focus away from this and toward the idea that lean is another trendy business initiative that will eventually go away.  Letting an assessment take the place of everyday interactions – including meetings, one-on-one discussions, and observation – misses valuable coaching opportunities that are the basic responsibilities of leadership and much more effective in changing behavior.

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About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.

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