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business, deming, improvement, leadership, Uncategorized

There’s No Generalizing in Lean

It has been decades since we first learned about the Toyota Production System and how it contributes to the company’s quality, productivity, and competitive success.  And although some companies have done very well with lean, most have struggled.  There are many reasons for failed applications of lean, but one that gets very little attention is the notion that lean thinking has no room for generalizations when it comes to performance improvement.  Objectives must be clear and deliberate, and include appropriate plans and measures to assure success.

BEYOND THE VISION

While vision statements are sometimes directional and somewhat general, turning them into action requires clarity around expectations, including short- and long-range objectives in order to make them a reality.  In fact, one of the problems related to visions is that many lack sincerity and do not progress beyond the development of creative slogans and posters.  Within a lean thinking environment, a vision is a serious and deliberate commitment of what the organization expects to be in the future.

I once worked for an organization that determined its vision to be Clearly the Best!  This could be thought of as a general, feel-good slogan if it did not progress beyond creating the statement, but the leadership team that developed the vision spent the time to create a common understanding of what it will mean to be the best.  They rolled it out to the organization with a picture of where they needed to be ten years out, and specifically what needed to be achieved within the next 3-5 years, including:

  • A Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) of 0.45
  • A 30% reduction in warranty claims
  • On time delivery to promise date of 99%
  • A 25% improvement in product development cycle time

By aligning the 3-5 year objectives with becoming clearly recognized by customers as the best, the team turned a generalization into deliberate objectives for the future.  Because competitors and customers did not remain static, the team was required to adjust its idea over the years of what it means to be the best, but it was always clear about what it meant at any given point in time.  Achievement of an objective usually meant setting the bar even higher to keep it moving even closer to the vision.  [It should be noted that the company’s mission was very clear which greatly helped the process by providing boundaries for the vision.]

ASSURING ALIGNMENT

In the above example, by creating specific long-term objectives, the team was able to quantify the milestones that needed to be achieved along the way to becoming the best.  Leaders mobilized the team around these objectives, resulting in plans and dashboards that monitored progress along the way.  Additionally, they provided opportunities for leadership development and coaching that proved invaluable for sustaining the gains.

If the vision is kept alive year-after-year by developing associated long-term objectives, it becomes much easier to assure that actions – from annual plans to daily problem-solving – are aligned and focused on continually closing the gaps between the present and the future.

Consider the following vision statements:

  • To be recognized as a trusted partner by customers, communities, and suppliers in all areas we operate;
  • We will be the leader in researched-based education;
  • To consistently provide products that make life healthy, exciting, and rewarding

It is easy to see why these statements were created but unless they are associated with long- and short-term objectives, they are not deliberate statements about the future.  Developing the vision is important, but it must constitute a serious commitment and be followed up with deliberate actions and measures to prevent the exercise from becoming futile.

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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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