Posted by: Knightbird | August 24, 2015

Where to Start With Lean?

11 years ago, this past May, I heard the message of Lean from a practitioner, the President of a large plastics manufacturing company. 2 of my colleagues were present as he told us, during a 30 minute lunch, about the significant gains made by his company using Lean. I asked him if they were using, planning to use, Lean in their administrative processes. He said yes. I was so excited when I got back to my job that I immediately spoke about it to my management team. Then I searched for the next available Lean Conference and went. Within a year, we had a strategic dream that focused on Lean Management as our plan for becoming the best run rural non-profit organization in the state of Alaska. We weren’t able to focus our board on adopting a Strategic Plan until 2007, but we began by budgeting a substantial sum for Lean consulting and training. We never looked back.

Why did we succeed while others did not. I believe the first reason was that we were in severe crisis. We had about $9.5 million in recurring revenue, and previous investments that were draining substantial amounts of cash from that revenue. I have written about the incredible waste we eliminated in many other blogs, and won’t repeat them here.

Because the Lean Strategy came from me, the organization’s CEO, and I had the support of 2 of my Executive Team, we were ahead of most organizations. We had focus on Lean. What we didn’t have was knowledge about how to do it. And the learning curve was steep. With my support, staff was motivated to learn and try.

I did have resistance and even sabotage. Everyone in the organization was Old School, not trained in management, but in service delivery. Not one employee had come through a basic nuts and bolts training in operations. We had no performance measurement capability. In the words of Nelson and Winter, our organizational routines were entrenched. We did the work the way we did because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” With some managers, we were able to overcome the resistance. It took 3 years for our most educated manager to come around. There’s not much you can do about sabotage other than eliminate the saboteur, once you discover who they are. I had to do that twice.

Saboteurs are difficult to ferret out. Both of our worked under cover for, in one case, 3 years. Because of insubordination, I released one because of the difficult circumstances created by the sabotage. The lesson I learned is to remove them quickly, before substantial damage can be done. During my Lean travels, I heard stories of senior level executives asking their CEO what would happen if they didn’t buy in to the Lean Strategy. Every last effective response was the same. Hand me your resignation or be removed. It’s best to ferret out saboteurs and resisters early and encourage them to move on. Most of them will anyway.

The place to start is with Leadership. I know of no successful Lean transformations that did not have top leadership on board. Communicate very clearly that Lean is THE strategic management initiative and start certifying every leader at a minimum level of knowledge. Understand what Leader Standard Work is in building a Lean organization and practice it every day.

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