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business, culture, deming, improvement, leadership, lean, lean thinking, management, tps, transformation

Driving Improvement Through Systems Thinking

“Management of a system requires knowledge of the interrelationships between all of the components within the system and of everybody that works in it.” W. Edwards Deming

One important discovery people make when they start on a lean journey is how much they still need to learn about their business.  Although they may have extensive knowledge about individual parts of their products, processes, markets, etc., lean thinking forces them to connect the components as a system, which is something many organizations have never done before.

When starting an improvement effort, I usually ask about the minimum target the team is attempting to achieve.  The answer is often something made up on the spot or a generalization, like as much as possible.  Improvement efforts should generally be driven by the actual requirements of the business.  For example,  if a company determines that the time between a customer placing an order and receiving the product is too long, it should determine an improvement target based on what the business needs.  If it currently takes 42 days and customers expect to receive the product in 22 days because of their needs or what competitors are offering, the minimum improvement needed is 20 days.  Although the gap appears to be significant, people will look at it as if it is based in reality, rather than a target that management dreamed up.  So,  instead of thinking of it as an impossible target, it becomes possible and something that the business needs to survive.  Attempts to go beyond the 22 day target can be attempted later, but should still be based on strategic reasons.

Although the concept appears simple, it can become much more difficult when applied to something deeper in the business than a product lead time.  In an oil and gas operation, for example, suppose it is taking too long to change out filters on a compressor.  Setting an improvement target would require first understanding what “too long” means.  This involves quantifying the compressor’s contribution to the overall system, and includes things like: the overall production target; uptime of the facility required to meet the production target; uptime of the subsystem where the compressor is located in order to meet the facility uptime; the compressor startup time after maintenance; the current uptime of the compressor; and the time needed to change the filters.  By understanding how all of these elements connect and contribute to the production target, it becomes easier to accurately determine the gap between the required time to change out filters and the actual time.

The more people learn the connections the components have with each other to achieve the overall business objectives, the easier it will be to see the problems and set improvement targets based on reality rather than gut feel.  It is not enough for people to know that the work they do contributes to the organization’s purpose and objectives – they must know how.  This comes through a continual focus on coaching and basing improvement activities on learning, which happens through questioning, discussing, and connecting to gemba.

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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