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deming, leadership, lean, management, tps, transformation

Want Lean to Succeed? Stop Focusing on Waste!

Although one of the most significant benefits of lean is the reduction of waste, it is not enough to say that lean is about reducing waste.  This may sound confusing, but those organizations that focus too heavily on waste as they go into lean tend to be the ones that become disappointed with the effort and end up dropping it altogether.

Avoiding Tool Infatuation

Thinking that lean is all about reducing waste often leads to an infatuation with the tools and completely misses the idea that, without transformation, the tools will do little to drive sustained improvements.  Lean is about transforming leadership, planning, learning, and thinking.  Reductions in waste will happen, but they will be impossible to sustain without transformation.

Our obsession with quick results has somehow led to the mistaken idea that lean is a toolbox for waste reduction.  We call in a lean “expert” who knows which tool to apply to a particular problem, and expect it to be solved while we go about business as usual.  The problem may even appear to be solved – but it eventually creeps back into the process without warning – often much larger than before.  In the end, we conclude that lean doesn’t work and abandon it altogether.

So What is Transformation?

Just saying that lean is about transformation isn’t enough to make it happen.  People need to know what transformation is, what their roles will be in the effort, and what they can realistically expect as a result.  A big part of the effort will be to assure leaders stay engaged and make a sincere effort to learn a different way to lead.

Although there is no magic formula for deploying lean within an organization, there are some basic elements of transformation that need to be included in the effort.  These elements include the following:

  • Clear Vision: The organization needs to have a clear and common vision of the future.  The vision pulls people and teams together and aligns efforts toward common objectives.  Without a vision, improvement efforts will become disjointed and random, resulting in little or no sustainable success.
  • Team Learning: Long-term sustainable improvement requires a method to assure continual team learning.  The Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle is a method for learning that, when applied consistently, can lead to effective team learning.  Based on scientific method, the PDSA cycle reprograms the way people think and approach the work they do, and leads to the development of a true learning organization.
  • Focused Annual Planning: Making the vision a reality requires that the organization continually adjust its efforts based on a number of internal and external factors that affect performance. Instituting a clear and focused annual planning process helps maintain focus on the vision while assuring that yearly targets are achieved.  When approached effectively, the plan drives an effective balance between the daily work (the annual targets) and improvement efforts (the vision).
  • Line-of-Sight Between Work & Long-Term: The benefits of aligning the work people do with the long-term objectives of the organization are huge.  Strong and focused leadership, along with effective dashboards can help people understand how the work they do connects to long-term objectives.
  • Enlightened Leadership: Achieving any level of sustained improvement is not possible without a leadership team that is focused, aligned, and continually learning how to become better leaders.  The role of leaders shifts dramatically toward being a coach with the objective of developing the problem-solving skills of team members and creating future leaders.

These elements comprise a system of improvement and, as with any system, requires development of the whole to be effective.  Although there are times where you may put more effort in one of the elements than the others, ignoring any one will result in a breakdown of the system.  The key, however, is to understand how each is connected to the vision, and that they work together to make the vision a reality.

Waste will be significantly reduced as the organization is transformed, but it is the result of a constant and obsessive focus on achieving the vision.  Targeting waste at the outset misses the point by attempting to skip the learning that is absolutely necessary for sustainable improvement.

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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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