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Jeff Liker

Dan Jones: Starting The Leadership Journey

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Monday, February 24, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Let me add to all the excellent advice to start by building the problem solving capabilities to improve the processes or value streams that create value for customers. The one lesson I have learnt time and time again is that lean cannot be “done for you”, you have to do it and lead it yourself. As the natural inclination of management is to reach for an expert to solve a problem this lesson is not easy to learn.

So you will be well advised to think as much about the path to develop the capabilities of top management as you do about the capabilities of the shop floor. Their key new challenges are to define the higher level business problems that need to be solved as well as how to support and mentor the capabilities of their subordinates.

The best way we have found to start down this path is to take what Jim Womack and I call a “Gemba walk”. We, and I am sure many experienced lean Sensei’s, have done this many times. Because we are not selling ongoing consulting we can be as frank and honest as possible. It also turns out to be the surest way of finding out whether the top team is serious about lean or not. You can bet that if they spot an easier way to improve profitability their interest in lean well disappear and progress will grind to a halt.

We start the “walk” by doing some homework to understand the context of the business; what drives competition in this sector, who the main competitors and customers are, what are the performance gaps that could be closed and if so what the growth potential could be etc. We might also see if any of their key customers or suppliers are into lean and might collaborate with them on their lean journey.

Then we actually walk the key value streams end-to-end, ideally with senior management and failing that with line management. In doing so we are both observing the work, the chaos, the obstacles to flow and the cash tied up in inventories as well as the way managers see what is going on and lead their teams. We then bring these managers together to map the high level end-to-end value streams and key support processes. This is usually most revealing as they have never seen their organisation this way before. From this we can ask some searching questions to for instance identify internal, self-generated sources of noise and variability that cause unnecessary work and unpredictable work orders. It quickly becomes apparent to the team where the main problems may lie, even if they are a bit uncomfortable with some of the findings.

Third we take a look at the list of projects being pursued by the Executive Board and ask how these were selected. It is not surprising to find fifty or more projects on the list and to hear all about the politics and “away days” that created the list. This opens a wider discussion about how management decisions are made and how projects are managed. We might at this point show them Toyota’s A3 planning and problem solving framework and if possible role-play the dialogues involved, as outlined in Managing to Learn. This also opens minds.

Finally we take a look at their internal continuous improvement or operations excellence resources to see how they are being used. We are no longer surprised to find them pursuing yet a different list of narrowly focused projects, that often bear little relation to the project list of the Board. In other words they are being used as expert fire-fighters.

Once we have digested all this and mulled it over we then summarise our findings in an old fashioned letter to the CEO and Exec team. If we have done a good job and ” hit the nail on the head” the letter itself is hard to ignore and provokes a lot of debate and reflection. This can lead to one of three outcomes, being invited to dig down to the next level and put flesh on the bones of our suggested way forward, a pause while the Board digests what we had to say, or being politely thanked and shown the door. In the latter case we are not surprised to hear from them a couple of years later when the alternative courses of action run out of steam.

This is just one way to reveal the gap between the way the organisation is currently managed and the path to a better future. It is just the start of their journey. Sure it takes a bit of courage. But in the end if senior management is not willing to lead then lean is unlikely to last and to deliver the results we know are possible.

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