Why you're not as lean as you think

April 14, 2015
Lean is not a static state; it’s a dynamic state of continuous improvement.

A European manufacturing company eager for affirmation of the success of its lean initiative invited in for a visit a renowned Toyota manager from Japan who had helped develop the Toyota Production System.

After a long day of going through every detail of the plant, everyone gathered in a conference room. The company’s chairman said, “Please, now tell us if you consider us to be world-class lean.” The answer was short and to the point: “It’s impossible for me to say,” the Toyota manager offered. “I wasn’t here yesterday.”

Lean is not a static state; it’s a dynamic state of continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is about engaging all employees in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of your processes every day. This idea is fairly simple to grasp, but very few businesses succeed in turning lean into the process of continuous improvement it’s supposed to be. Here are the seven most common reasons:

1. Pushing people to work harder, not smarter

A common reaction to tougher competition and challenging circumstances is to push people to work harder. Go the other way! Continuously finding smarter ways is the only sustainable approach.

The way that some companies set and pursue targets pushes employees to work harder from year to year. This type of effort doesn’t measure how good the company is at developing its ability to achieve more-challenging targets in the future.

It’s important to include targets that measure the extent of employees’ activity in the improvement work to push employees to work smarter rather than harder.

Toyota defines an improvement as a solved problem and a problem as the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Continuous improvement is about both coping with problems caused by changes in your world and implementing the strategies you’ve developed to reach your business goals.

Targeting efficiencies in activities can serve to boost your company’s resilience and thus its competitiveness. What’s more important in the long term for your business?

2. Thinking complex problems need complex answers

A common reaction to failed improvement initiatives is to search for a more-advanced solution. Go the other way!
Simplicity will stand the test of time.

For your organization to succeed with continuous improvement, you have to make it a natural part of the everyday work of every employee. For that to become reality, your approach can’t be complicated. Complication wastes time for everyone, from new employees in training to managers tasked with maintaining and updating complicated processes.

Time, furthermore, is probably your most limited resource, and to survive and grow you need to use everyone’s creativity. Keep things simple to save time and give everyone a chance to contribute.

3. Going for the trivial many vs. the vital few

A common reaction to recurring problems is to bombard them with solutions. Go the other way! Focus and dig deeper to find the real cause of the problem.

Some people think that creativity grows best when all boundaries are removed. The opposite is true. Limiting and clarifying a task makes it easier for everyone to contribute.

The same principle applies to problem-solving. When you zoom in, dig deeper, divide into smaller pieces and discard the unessential the aha moment will come, and that’s when you find easy-to-implement solutions with great impact.

4. Spurring change by pointing to what's not working

When results don’t match expectations, it’s easy to focus on problems that need to be fixed. But this can foster a culture of blame. A more effective approach to inspiring action is to visualize good examples and positive results.

Highlight progress made to create an environment where improvement potential can be expressed without people becoming defensive.

5. Telling vs. asking

In crucial situations, it’s common for managers to adopt a command-and-control approach. But offering the opportunity to take ownership of a project or process can help employees reach their full potential.

Improvement data from several companies, including the Coca-Cola plant in Sweden, show that roughly 80 percent of an organization’s performance improvement comes from front-line ideas, and only 20 percent from management-driven initiatives.

It’s a good idea for managers to monitor how many questions they ask compared with the number of statements they make. What is your question-statement ratio? Do you try to be more interested or more interesting? Asking more questions helps you learn and helps your colleagues grow.

6. Not taking time to analyze

A common reaction to inadequate output is focusing on keeping people and machines busy. But only by taking time for analysis can you continuously improve your performance.

Everyone in an organization needs to know where they are in relation to their targets to be able to improve. In other words, continuous improvement won’t happen until everyone knows the company’s objectives and what they can do to advance these.

Joakim Ahlström is head of consulting at C2 Management and the author of “How to Succeed with Continuous Improvement: A Primer for Becoming the Best in the World.” He has consulted for Toyota, Coca-Cola, and Volvo, among other companies. Contact him at [email protected].

7. Seeking brilliance before competence

Companies looking for more improvement ideas sometimes turn to formal idea campaigns as a solution. There’s one problem with idea campaigns: They tend to kill creativity.

Idea campaigns can prompt a surge of submissions so big that only a fraction of all ideas can be assessed and/or implemented. This means the majority of people will get another confirmation that no one listens to their ideas, and next time they may be less likely to contribute.

A systematic approach should increase the improvement competence of your organization every day. The best foundation for growth is a SYSTEM that continuously Saves Yourself Stress, Time, Energy, and Money!

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