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business, deming, leadership, lean

A Deliberate & Calculated System of Improvement

“A goal without a method is nonsense.” – W. Edwards Deming

One of the key aspects of lean that many people have difficulty grasping is that it is more deliberate and calculated than the traditional approach to business.  Once a target or objective is set, lean provides a framework for mobilizing and organizing the team to make it happen.  In a cultural sense, lean thinking leads to an almost obsessive drive to improve.

As an example, it is fairly common for leaders to set a vision for an organization that’s creative or inspirational, only to leave its achievement to chance.  The barriers and roadblocks to meeting the near-term targets become distracting and interfere with efforts to focus on longer-term objectives.

By What Method?

I remember hearing W. Edwards Deming repeat the phrase, “by what method?” during his seminars.  It is a simple question that is so critical to driving the organization toward achieving an objective.  In effect, it forces efforts to the process to be used to achieve desired results rather than focusing only on the result.

When approached with a lean mindset, setting a vision is only the first step of a long and deliberate process of making it a reality.  The vision becomes more than a creative or esoteric statement that is only considered when remembered or convenient.  It becomes truly integrated into the organization’s thinking and everyday operation.

The process for making the vision – or any long-term objective – a calculated and deliberate effort includes asking the following questions:

  • What are we trying to achieve? What is it we want to happen and by when? Clarify the objective in terms that everybody in the organization can understand.  This is where ambiguous or imprecise statements are translated into specific objectives (e.g., translating a 10-year vision into 3-year objectives).
  • What’s the plan? What are the gaps between where we are and where we want to be and what are we going to do to close them?  At the highest levels, this includes determining and deploying the targets throughout the organization.  At the business and operational levels, it means determining the steps to achieve the targets.
  • How are we going to measure progress? The long-term objectives are often expressed through lagging – or results-based – measures.  Although it is critical to understand and watch the lagging metrics, the information they provide is after-the-fact and too late to correct the problems that are blocking success.  Because of this, it is critical to establish leading measures that are closely tied to the plans.  When clear and well connected to the plan, the leading measures will provide information to the team early enough to change course before results are affected.
  • How are we going to mobilize the team? This includes communicating the plans up and down the organization to make it very clear how the team expects to achieve the objective.  Most people understand the importance of communicating downward but, what is often missed is the importance of communicating the plan upwards through a catchball process.  Leaders should have a clear idea how the team expects to achieve the plan to feel comfortable that the objective is understood and that the effort will not compromise aspects of performance outside of the team.  Catchball is also an opportunity for the team to express concerns about meeting the objective, and to ask for help from leaders.
  • How are we going to stay focused on the objective? How are we going to hold ourselves accountable?  Making a vision a reality requires much more than communicating or deploying the statement into the organization.  There needs to be a firm meeting rhythm around the objective to follow progress and determine actions when results are not occurring as expected.  It forces the leadership team to clearly understand where the organization is on its journey to achieve its purpose.
  • What adjustments are needed to stay on track? Nobody understands the future well enough to develop an iron clad plan that will lead to long-term improvement.  Because of this, the journey will require adjustments along the way, and knowing when and how to adjust is critical to staying on track toward success.  Understanding when and what to adjust comes from successful application of the previous five questions.

The above questions comprise a system of improvement that makes the long-term objectives truly achievable.  The process can apply to local process improvements or the organization-wide drive toward the vision.  When applied correctly and consistently, it can create the discipline to stay focused on a vision and shift it from hopes and wishes to a deliberate and specific plan to improve.

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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