Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Point of No Return

WARNING: Lean is not always fun. 

Nobody does LEAN for real without a good reason. Either things have gotten chaotic, or there isn't enough return on investment. The concepts themselves are a light at the end of the tunnel. But, when you first start the journey, it isn't like there aren't plenty of "proceed with caution" signs. Most fail. Not everyone will jump on board. Etc.

LEAN kicks off like New Years Eve. We get a group of people, do some training (not that we train for New Years Eve), and have some festivities. Have an event or two. Lots of camaraderie, slaps on the back. Lots of giggles. Then reality. January 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. By January 5th, we are ready to settle back into how we've always done things. It is hard enough for most of us to get out of January with our resolutions intact. How do you get an ENTIRE company to stick to the "resolution" of a LEAN strategy?

Two words. LEARNING ORGANIZATION. From a leadership perspective, the trick is to change people's perspective from "manufacturer" to learning organization. From "service provider" to learning organization. From "healthcare provider" to learning organization. The curriculum? We will work every single day to become the world's foremost experts on the subject of our customers, our processes, our suppliers, our problems. Mistakes and problems can be thought of as tuition. How do we avoid paying tuition twice for the same "course"?

That is where A3 thinking comes in. Events need to become what we do daily (even if it is 15-20 minutes per day by everyone). The three new concepts that need to be developed simultaneously, made incredibly visible and continuously improved are Dashboard Metrics (3-5 real time measures), Learning (how do you create a process where everyone in the company learns then teaches?) and Kaizan (improvement activity to "change" the metrics). The problem is that kaizan "events" are too infrequent and expensive, and don't involve enough people. A3 projects happen every day. A3 teams learn and then teach (at the project "closing"). Tuition is usually paid once because the learnings are taught. Did you ever hear that the best way to learn something is to teach it?

Of the three new concepts, the hardest is the kaizan (A3) piece. It's not that there is a lack of potential projects. There are hundreds of small improvements that can be made. Defects, excess inventory, safety hazards, overburden, employee suggestions, customer complaints, etc. The hard part is getting everyone to agree that going after these things is important (too busy). Getting better needs to become part of everyone's job description. Two of the companies I have the honor of working for have done over 350 A3 projects (and closings) so far this year. A third company has closed over 100. That is quite a bit of learning and getting better.

Once you get to that level of concept development, you have reached the point of no return. The only constant in companies like that is change. At this point, it is almost impossible to go back. People have seen the value of making improvements in their own work, and in their own lives. It takes less energy to sustain at this point. In my experience, it can take months or years to get to this point, depending on the "lever" (the reason for change). The bigger the lever, the faster to the point of no return.

Once you reach the point of no return, it is up to management to use this new process to steer the ship. I guess it is OK for the A3 process to merely be the way a company implements employee suggestions (it's better than a suggestion box). But, it is much, much more powerful to combine it with dashboard metrics and learning to do real policy deployment. For example, let's say we decide we want to be the safest company in our industry. The metrics, the learning and the kaizan activity (the A3s) will become safety top heavy. EVERYONE will begin to understand that safety is very important when they are constantly attending closings of safety A3s. 

Once you reach the point of no return, there is a sense of ownership in people where they question and challenge everything. That's a fun place to work!

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