How do you start a Lean Thinking journey

My experience with companies motivation to start a Lean journey is one of two reasons:
  1. They are smashing it and are starting to get some speed wobbles so they are needing to bring back some structure and organisation back into the workplace.
  2. They have realised after one too many firefighting sessions that they have reached the point of exhaustion and are using Lean almost as a last effort to regain some control over their business.

The common theme across these two scenarios is that there is a degree of chaos in the organisational daily routine. 

In scenario two, the owners, managers etc finally call in people like myself when things have gone pear shaped.  Issues have gradually grown worse overtime are ‘suddenly’ too big to ignore and firefighting the issues have pushed the team to the edge.  It is almost too late.

Then I walk in and start throwing ideas around - “do this, it will make your job easier”..... “Do that, it will help you see more problems”. I can totally appreciate that the first improvement idea is too create a lynch mob and drive me out of town!! There is already a huge amount of stress, burnout, chaos - so why add more fuel to the fire??

In this situation, the best option is to get the team to write down all the small issues that are causing the chaos and then one by one sorting them out.  This might sound a bit simplistic and it is.  It is a thousand times harder to actually implement this kind of activity than it appears.  Particularly when it is a totally different way of working and prioritising.

When SMEs in particular are chasing their tail but want to improve, there will be a short period where the issues will appear to get worse.  This is most likely because it is.  If you are missing 2-3 deadlines per week, this might increase to 4-5 as you begin your Lean journey.  Why is that?  Simply because you are prioritising your time to solve problems permanently.  This does take time and effort.  This is why you need to be 100% on board starting this journey, because the beginning is hard, really hard.  The good news is that as you stick to the programme, things do begin to gradually get better. This builds more momentum and more time available for additional improvement activity.  All of a sudden, those missed deadlines move to 1-2 a week, then 1 a fortnight then once a month.  The work becomes easier and dare I say it - enjoyable.

At the risk of mentioning tools too early - when chaos is abound, I always find it useful to look at undertaking a series of 5S events.  That is organising the work area so it becomes a better environment to operate in. It also provides a stimulus that everyone can get behind.  When facilitated well it is also a great way for team members to identify and implement additional improvement ideas. The physical change is a clear indicator that something different is happening in the business.  My caution is - don’t be reliant on tools alone.  The long game (where the real benefits are) is about changing the culture of the organisation. 

The biggest challenge through this period is having the confidence to keep to the plan.  As soon as you get pulled into firefighting mode again, it is a lost opportunity to improve something.  It is also the hardest time to convince staff that it will get better, that they can stop work and make improvements when they can see all the work building up.

This is when communication, feedback and support from the leadership is essential.  This is when you need to be committed to get to the Gemba. This is when, as a leader, you need to keep to the improvement game plan more than ever, even when it is still raining chaos. A key aspect of knowing how to start a journey of Lean Thinking in your business is acknowledging there is a big challenge ahead and having the support around the leadership and staff to start and build the momentum.  Without this element, any enthusiasm, interest that may be there will diminish quickly once firefighting is prioritised over improvement.

Going back to the original scenarios - this initial one is based on identifying early the need to create a more flexible learning environment which Lean creates.  This is critical for a growth focused business as the processes and systems used today may not be fit for purpose 3,6 or 12 months time.

In this situation a business and the leaders need to set that vision and establish the ‘true north’. In what effectively becomes a change ready organisation, understanding the need to always improve, adjusting and modifying aspects of the business is understood when the ground work on the ‘why’ has been done. Then communicating and establishing what the boundaries are for individuals.  Being clear on what team members can change immediately, versus improvements which may need budget decisions or business wide changes that may need leadership involvement.

A great way to begin when a business is proactively implementing a Lean culture is to establish what ‘good’ looks like.  What I mean in this is establishing a future vision of excellence.  Ideally this should cover all aspects of the business.  This is what I use LEGO® Serious Play® for, as it is a brilliant methodology to help take teams through this process. From there, teams can identify the gaps between the current and ideal state and break them into improvement actions. In this situation it becomes a proactive improvement initiative that in reality never has an ending. Each quarter, review the progress and if necessary refresh the vision of excellence. This will and should be forever changing in response to the business and all the external influences.

In any of these situations the role of leadership to set the scene and expectations, to enable and empower team members to begin to make changes and to provide feedback is all essential for a successful start to the improvement journey. 

What is also important is getting external support.  Yeah I know many of the readers of this blog will be cynical that a consultant is writing this - of course I would say that!! But it is no different to a sports team having a coach or an individual getting a personal trainer.  It is about getting specialist knowledge and accountability. Experience is key - bringing in the right tools for the right situation, being that supportive shoulder when things get hard but also providing the accountability to keep progress happening even when it all feels too hard.

Finally, set clear measures. It is near impossible to improve what you don’t measure.  Whatever improvement pathway you might be starting, consider what might be the key elements that you can measure that will inform you and the team if you are making a positive impact.  It is tempting to have a myriad of measures, but I strongly encourage 2-3 measures that look at the process (lead measures) and 2-3 measures that measure the outcomes (lag measures).  Make the numbers transparent and visible for everyone to see. There will always be more data available but the key measures used should be just enough to give you a snapshot and indication whether you are on track or off track.  It should be just enough information to create and facilitate the right improvement based conversations.

In summary - if you are wanting to start a Lean journey, be committed to it first and foremost.  This isn’t a programme of work that will sustain a stop, start approach. Once that decision has been made it is all about communication and empowerment of the team.  Overall the best way to start is to start.  If this becomes a sustainable part of the business, it really doesn’t matter what part of the business you begin the journey with.  Just start.


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