In most organizations I know, executive leadership and middle-management have very different perspectives and mindsets:
- Executive leadership aims to change things in order to get better, mostly financial results – higher sales, better profit, etc.
- Middle-management is focused on maintaining the status quo in order to make things run on a daily basis
- Most work-level employees just hope to get through the day without being blamed, which is no easy challenge considering the number of things that can easily go wrong with any value-adding job.
Lean thinking impacts each level greatly, but not necessarily in the same way.
At executive level, the mainstream approach is the change projects. When I discuss with senior leaders they tend to conduct boardroom analysis of their business, conclude that one – or several – things are not functioning as well as they should and lay out plans for a radical change, usually with a large investment. Radical change comes in the form of acquiring a new market (introducing a new product, buying a company, etc.), reorganizing the business to better fit their understanding of how the market works, purchasing new systems and so on. Having decided on a transformative decision, their problem is then to manage the change to make the rest of the organization “buy in”, “get on board” and “make it so.” Then they cross fingers for two years hoping to see whether this large scale change will bring in the hoped for results, and spend much time politicking to show that it does.
Lean’s approach to change for executives is radically different, although the question of what needs to change to improve the business remains the same. Lean leaders spend time on the gemba – at their customers, operations, suppliers – asking themselves what performance could be improved for their customers, and so what specific process performance needs to improve in operations to do so. The question asked is not “what needs to change?” but “where are the high-leverage areas?” How to change is not decided I the boardroom but by spending time on the gemba looking at local kaizen efforts to get a grasp of what is possible, what is not, and what is not impossible. Change does not have to be managed. Changed is permanent through kaizen. The difficulty is relating small-step kaizen changes with large-scale business improvement.
In traditional taylorist organizations, middle managers generally come in two kinds: the administrators and the project managers. Administrators keep the cogs turning by passing down instructions and reporting up – this involves much data aggregation, control and solving a multitude of issues: personnel, supplies, etc. Project managers are the main tool for senior execs to run the business by imposing large scale changes, conducted by “projects.” These project managers are tasked with changing procedures from one state to the other, which involves persuading administrators (by hook or crook), who’s own job is maintaining the status quo in the face of daily issues and environment changes.
Getting executives on board with lean is about showing them how they will discover a path forward for their business in the current fog of war. Executives I know who get interested in lean understand there are no simple answers to complex problems. They understand turbulent environments require constant challenging of one’s assumptions. The actually look to lean to help them clarify what matters and what doesn’t. As a result, they get on board with lean when gemba discussions about what customer performance can be improved and where in the process can this improvement happen starts to align. In general, they also enjoy the kaizen interaction with teams on the shop floor – the show of initiative and enthusiasm that demonstrates that things can improve, assumptions can be challenged, new ways can be found, and profitability can be increased without the trauma of large-scale changes.
To middle-managers, lean is a huge headache. Their job is to keep things just as they are, which is hard enough. Kaizen is both bewildering and far more complex than it seems because of the detail implications, which leaders simply don’t see (or, it is suspected, refuse to see). To get them on board, executives need to make sure middle-managers understand they really, really want this to happen. The three main tools for doing so are:
- Obeya: start with a wall showing key indicators that reflect your improvement dimensions. It’s a motherhood to say that what gets measured gets done, but measuring the improvements you’re seeking will definitely reassure middle managers that you mean business.
- Visual management challenges: during gemba walk, keep stressing that visual management a main responsibility of the areas manager… until some finally get it. With good visual management comes good observation and good discussion and when other middle managers see how much visual management improves relationships with the boss, they’ll get on-board – sometimes, surprising you in the way they engage their own people in problem solving daily performance issues.
- Kaizen reviews on the gemba: reviewing kaizen is a special moment where, as an executive, you can acknowledge that teams have taken responsibility for an aspect of their performance, studied their own method and come up with something visibly better. Such reviews are essential to show middle-managers that you’re not simply going through the motions, but you’re listening deeply and taking on actions of your own to remove roadblocks or encourage teams that are doing well. Middle managers will get progressively hooked if they both see the incentive and realize it’s not that hard to succeed: any bona fide effort at improvement usually opens up an opportunity to get messages across.
There are no magic bullets in terms of getting people on board. It’s usually a matter of grabbing their attention (sometimes shocking them into paying attention), clearly framing the issues in terms of what performance improvement we’re seeking and what success looks like, and clarifying the incentives (as well as delivering consistently). Part of the charm of lean is that alignment across the hierarchy and between functions is in-built. So although different triggers will work with executives and middle or frontline management, certainly practicing team will bring all levels of management closer together on the gemba and get them to share problems across perspectives, which is the first step to mutual trust.