20. Jun. 2018

The role of Senior leadership in the shift to a Lean culture.

by Michael Smiles

Let’s first start off by defining “What is a Lean culture?”.  Defining culture is always a bit nebulous but, let’s keep it simple and straight forward. I consider a Lean culture a “working environment that is customer centric, problem solving, employee building, waste reducing and profit generating”. Given this rather simple definition, I can’t emphasize enough the important role that Senior Leadership plays in creating and supporting the desired cultural shift within their organization. 

If senior leaders think that a Lean culture will develop without their reinforcement and support they are in for a rude surprise. Often, Senior leaders misinterpret or refuse to acknowledge the active role they need to play to help reshape the culture within their organization. We’re not talking about the application of a few Lean tools that are often relegated to the rank and file. I’m talking about developing a culture of employee engagement that believes in continually improving the operation through an iterative process. 

So, if the engagement of the senior leadership is pivotal in reshaping their organizational Lean Culture then we need to be clear about “Engaged in what and trained to do what?”.  In any successful cultural shift, commitment and engagement from the top is paramount and key to sustainability.  This is easy and obvious to say, but, we need to clearly articulate the expectations to make this happen. I’ve compiled a list of 9 tactical elements that I feel are crucial for any senior leader to demonstrate engagement and commitment.

1. Understand the process to the extent that you can set clear performance and outcome expectations.  I don’t expect you to be a SME for the process but I do expect that you will understand the desired outcome and be clear about how it might deviate from your expectations.  You can’t learn this from your office you need to be out in the Gemba wherever that might be.

2. Become personally engaged in Lean and provide obvious commitment. Participate in KAIZEN™ activity by signing up as an active participant while working side by side process improvement team members.  Always set a clear priority to physically attend “end of activity’ summary presentations. Ensure that you attend these sessions and explain why this activity is important to the business and how it reinforces the desired culture. Be clear about what culture you are driving towards. Senior Leaders need to be consistent in their dialogue and be visibly supporting the new culture.  Can the senior leaders respond clearly and consistently when asked “What’s in it for me” by any member of the operations team?

3. Provide education and training.  Not everyone is on the same page when it comes to understanding a Lean culture. Be generous with your training but make sure its relevant to the task at hand. Don’t get caught up with mass training deployment plans under the false pretence that this will put everyone on the same page. If employee engagement and continuous improvement are the elements of the new Lean culture it best to learn about Lean at the Gemba solving problems big and small.

4. Create clear visual metrics. Metrics send out a message to employees as to what senior leaders feel is important to running the business. Metrics shape behaviour and guide teams. Lean should be viewed as an operating strategy that leads to profitability and hence survivability. There is nothing wrong with being clear about this. Toyota became globally successful by focusing on the customer, providing a product with the lowest cost, highest quality and shortest Lead Time.  This is the model they chose to help make themselves profitable. Understand Lean by making incremental improvements towards closing the gap on clear unambiguous performance goals.

5. Hold senior leaders accountable for Lean Progress. This is done by clearly understanding what’s important over a defined time horizon.  Put senior managers at financial risk and/or provide profit sharing to help shape behaviours.

6. Celebrate and reward. Reinforce Lean behaviours emulated, celebrate success and reward progress. We’re trying to create a new culture and what better way than to reinforce incremental progress.  Be genuine, people can easily recognize disingenuous behaviour. 

7. Use Lean as a people development program. First build your people and then secondly build your processes. Remember we’re trying to change the culture so that individuals feel safe making improvements and exposing problems. Developing people with the right skills and mindset will clearly separate your Lean program from others that are destined to under deliver. Senior leaders need to provide air cover for the early adaptors. A small number of employees with quickly understand it while an equally small number of will feel threatened and try to kill it.  The rest are waiting to see how serious you are and creating a new culture.

8. Eliminate the obstacles. Not everyone will fit into the new culture. Be fair and do it the right way, remember everyone is watching.

9. Continuously reinvigorate your Lean program. As the senior leader in the organization you are the head cheerleader. Everyone is watching our actions and trying to understand the new expectations. Reinforce success, rotate resources through the Lean office, create a buzz, make promotions contingent on Lean knowledge and application.  

Creating a Lean culture can be difficult. Not because it’s complex but because it’s different. If Lean implementation was so simple then we’d see more Lean successes. Lean is a new way to manage a business. It requires process changes but more importantly Management changes. Eighty percent of the effort for true Lean success rests with how senior leaders engage and support Lean activities.  Be mindful of these tactics as you begin your Cultural change journey because in the end it’s all about the people.

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