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Art Smalley

Art Smalley: This is honestly more about leadership than lean

By Art Smalley, - Last updated: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Be forewarned – this response may come off as a somewhat brutal but I was frankly appalled by parts of the above question. Maybe I am just getting old and cranky? If so you have my apologies in advance. In order to explain my extremely visceral reaction to the submitted question I will address the statements made one by one for clarity.

For starters you state that “As CEO of my company I have a grasp of Lean and have experienced it in my career, but now that I am CEO, I find it hard to ask my people to make time for improvement work”. Ok let’s start here. We’ll for starters I am guessing that you actually don’t have much practical experience in Lean. If you did have practical experience and success in Lean then I honestly don’t believe you’d be making the initial comment above or the ones that follow…Let me explain.

As CEO you honestly have difficulty asking people to do improvement work? What on earth are you leading a company for if it is not for improvement in customer service, quality, growth, people development, and countless other areas? Do you realize that by implying to me you find difficulty in this fundamental task that you come off as shirking a primary responsibility of a leader? Forget Lean. This is Leadership 101 and if you don’t have a passion to lead, motivate, and require improvement in your organization then I suspect you will be replaced by someone who will before too long. Sorry but this first utterance was such a turn off you lost me at step one.

Secondly you compounded my initial reaction by the follow up statement. “They (my employees) are already too busy doing their regular work” hence you thus imply then cannot do any do any improvement work. This is why I further doubt that you do have much experience in Lean to be honest. No one is performing 100% value added work all day long. Not production workers, not service workers, not sales people, engineers, finance personnel, managers or CEO’s. Everyone has a small amount of time in their day that is actually something of value to the end customer or the process they are engaged in working upon. Then they are busy on other stuff. Sorry but answering e-mail, texting, sitting in meetings, sorting, reworking, answering phones, etc. are not all value added work. They are wasteful and can be curtailed immediately or reduced without much effort or additional activity. People go on vacation and work still gets done all the time right? You find time. You make time if necessary. Don’t fall into the trap of classifying all activity being performed as value added work.

Fundamentally I think you need to stop thinking of the quantity of work performed and start thinking of the quality of the actual work performed by your organization. In the end you are not asking people to work harder or longer. You should be asking people to work smarter and more effectively! The fundamental principle of improvement regarding work is to first ELIMINATE unnecessary work, waste, or unnecessary details. Then secondly it is to seek to COMBINE work so that it can be done more efficiently or effectively. Thirdly it is to REARRANGE work to flow more effectively. And Fourth it is the SIMPLIFY work so that it can be done more easily. Of course this has to go hand in hand with improving quality and safety. Lean is subtractive in nature when done properly. Nowhere in there does it suggest you add work or work less efficiently. Start by eliminating the dumb inefficient stuff and create more time if you have to…This honestly is Lean 101 and you have either forgotten some basic elements or you have received some very bad advice in the past. So my first advice is to revisit the first principles of Lean and rethink your current thought process and approach to lean.

You also further state that “this company is in the outdoor sports industry, and many people join these companies because they want to climb, backpack, canoe, etc. and I’m reluctant to ask them to work more hours and sacrifice time for these activities. Any advice?” Yes. Lot’s in fact. The logic problem you have boxed yourself into is your belief that you are asking people to work harder and extra hours in order to improve. Just start with the eight hours of the day and the quality (not quantity) of that work being performed today. You have no problems to fix during regular working hours??? Trust me it is not like your organization has no problems or low hanging fruit to go after. The real issue is where and how to start now!

In addition quite frankly I think that are first BLESSED by workers who CARE about your product and the environment your products are used in. Do you know how many CEO’s would love to have this situation? Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. Would you prefer if you had workers who don’t care about your product and only live to spend more time at work and run up as much overtime as they can? I’ll take the former case every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

My advice is to channel your employee’s passion about products you company offers into the process by which the products are designed, manufactured, sold, delivered, and serviced, etc. This is a leadership challenge and not just a lean thing. Almost every human being prefers to be engaged and motivated at work. Problem solving and improvement activity is not what makes work dreary. It is the absence of leadership, goals, improvement activities, and self-development that makes work distasteful to most people.  Start by utilizing the eight hours per day (or whatever the number is) of your employees more effectively. That is first necessary to eliminate your mental block around adding work.

I suspect at the root of this issue we have what are some of the fundamental flaws in how Lean is explained and conducted around the world. And that is not your fault. Lean sadly is somehow exported around the world as extra “workshops” and “overtime” to get things done. It is additive rather than subtractive in nature. Lean is incorrectly depicted about making charts and graphs and maps and rules or other stuff that is also additive in many instances I have observed. It is often a form of “wallpaper”. Sadly it has become quite divorced from the process of actual improvement (results) and respect for people. I call this Lean Gone Wrong™.

So I may have been a little harsh here in parts. I am not unsympathetic to the situation. Getting started is the hardest part for many. However improvement requires active leadership and a “can do” attitude. Passiveness, reluctance, and “can don’t” won’t get it done. You don’t have to start with large immense workshops or projects. You can start by changing the quality (not quantity) of work and quality of service provided. There are enough hours in an eight hour day to get that done without demanding extreme sacrifices. However you do have to have some disdain for the current status quo and expect others to improve as well. This is a question of leadership however and not really one about Lean…

In conclusion my final advice is to sit back and get your mind straight with the 5W’s and 1H for leading this situation. What do you require from the organization in terms of improvement? Remember you are the CEO after all. Why does this need to be done for the internal business or the customer? Get that story straight first. Then decide When does it need to be done and Where will you have people start? Who will be involved at first? How can you get people fired up and started? How much of the current inefficient use of time can be converted to make time for improvement work. Start small and take baby steps if necessary. Remind employees they also have an obligation to the business and customer if necessary. Think Quality of work over Quantity. Work Smarter not Harder, etc. I could go on but I think you get the point by now? This is about getting people to follow your lead…not getting them to “do lean”. Best of luck to you.

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