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business, leadership, lean

Systems Thinking & Lean Leadership

One aspect of lean that often gets overlooked is the depth of systems thinking required to be successful.  For a variety of reasons, people like to jump into the more visible and concrete elements of lean – like dashboards or problem-solving – without clearly understanding the organizational elements that are necessary to support and sustain continual improvement.

What is important to understand about the organizational elements is that they all fall within the responsibility of leadership.  Unless leaders are continually looking for problems in these areas, they can go undetected and destroy efforts to transform the company.  Leaders need to openly and honestly reflect on organizational issues to understand that addressing the problems is their responsibility.  When done well, continually improving the organizational issues will build a foundation that results in sustaining the transformation for many years.

Building the System

Establishing a systems thinking mindset requires the ability to comprehend the whole and how individual components work together for the benefit of the whole.  In real terms, this means establishing clarity around the purpose of the organization and understanding how each system, function, and team supports achievement of the purpose.  It also means establishing balance throughout the system to assure that no individual component becomes optimized at the expense of the overall organization.

People generally think of systems thinking in terms of value stream management and working to optimize the flow of material and information throughout the system.  Although value stream management is a critical element of continual improvement, there are other system-related issues that need to be understood and improved in order to sustain the gains made in throughout the process.  Without addressing issues like hiring, employee turnover, and leadership development, there is little chance that efforts to improve will truly make a difference to the organization.

Kaizen for Leaders

The overall organization is gemba for leaders and as such, needs constant attention and effort to improve.  Leaders must continually look for and remove the high-level systemic issues that interfere with the ability to improve.  Realizing, for example, that a poor hiring decision is the fault of the organization will drive kaizen toward improving the hiring process.  Just as problems on the shop floor require operators to act, hiring problems (as well as other organizational issues) require leaders to act.

The organization is a system, and leaders must recognize their responsibility to improve the way the components work together to drive and sustain improvements in performance.  They must also understand that the responsibility of driving improvement never ends.

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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