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Karen Martin

Karen Martin: Technical proficiency and leadership acumen – can you nail the problem statement first time right?

By Karen Martin, - Last updated: Wednesday, November 12, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

This is a great question and one that nags at me a lot. However, instead of answering the question directly, I’d like to share some fodder for considering whether a KPO is an effective structure for supporting Lean transformation.

I’ll begin by sharing some real-world experience… At the Lean Coaching Summit in July, I had the opportunity to watch over 100 people attempt problem solving (one workshop and two extended concurrent sessions). Most of the participants said they were “leading” Lean at their companies. Only 2 of the 100+ nailed the problem statement out of the gate. At least 1/3 struggled to gain any clarity at all over what the problem actually was. Nearly half of the participants were unfamiliar with basic root cause analysis methods. These people attended the conference to learn how to coach improvement, but most of them lacked even moderate proficiency in the fundamentals around problem solving and making improvement. How can they possibly coach?

Many clients we’ve worked with have had “KPOs” that were established long before they retained us. They’re typically staffed with people who are charged with helping the organization both establish a continuous improvement culture and achieve significant results. Most of these clients have very few tangible results to show for the rather significant expense and effort they’ve put into improvement.

As I work with these teams, I often see a lack in both technical proficiency (analytical methods and countermeasures) and leadership acumen (ability to listen, reason, galvanize, mediate, advocate, collaborate, etc.). Like Mark, I often find that KPOs are staffed with people who have virtually no Lean experience. This problem is fairly rampant – not just in healthcare. In the few cases I’ve seen where KPO teams have had experience, it’s typically only in one of the three necessary categories of understanding and skill needed (philosophical/principles, behavioral/practices, technical/methods/tools). When I raise my concerns about the team’s level of proficiency and offer to develop them, many organizations balk at the time I suggest it will take to build even moderate proficiency. To many, improvement seems like it should be intuitive and easy—and that we’re all born with deep problem-solving acumen.

After 14 years now working with hundreds of organizations in various stages of Lean, I’m now vehemently opposed to establishing KPOs unless:

1. A senior leader with very strong and deep Lean experience is at the helm

2. The organization is 100% dedicated to investing in deep development for the KPO staff and realistic about the time it will take to do so. And that signficant coaching will be required.

3. The KPO team’s mission is to teach and coach others, not to merely “do”

Otherwise, it’s too tempting for an organization to have a false sense of proficiency simply because a KPO exists. After 14 years with Lean, experience has taught me that organizations progress more quickly and deeply when they work with highly seasoned external consultants to lead improvement (note: lead, not do), while simultaneously and aggressively developing senior leaders, middle managers, and frontline supervisors.

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