There are lots of definitions and descriptions around about the principles and practice of lean management. Here’s one from John Shook of the Lean Enterprise Institute that well captures the essence and spirit of lean management;

“Lean management is not about quick answers, but about going through a thinking process to investigate, analyze, and understand. To try, perhaps to fail, and learn.

In short, lean management is very much about asking questions and trying things, or encouraging others to try things. Lean management itself is not much about providing the right answer but it is very much about asking the right question”.

Better Times: Powered by Employee Engagement

Many businesses have found success through time-tested processes. Often it’s an example of “survivorship bias”: companies are profitable by the accident of being the last one standing.

Businesses need to continuously demonstrate their value to customers. If not, they risk being overtaken by newer, more nimble operations with fresh, better ideas.

The first step to making your company more competitive is keeping employees engaged. Lean Practices support this—and engaged employees support it in return.

Line workers know where the bottlenecks are. They also know what processes speed things up and which slow them down. Here’s the question. Will an employee who knows what should change speak up?

Engaged employees see their organizations as having an open door and behave accordingly. Disengaged employees see that door as shut—no matter what leaders say.

The Value of a Fresh Eye

You probably remember the story of the emperor’s new clothes. This leader walked through town with no clothes on. The townspeople wouldn’t speak up because they were afraid of looking stupid. Only a young child who didn’t understand the social norms could tell the naked truth.

This is the value of a new employee—or, by extension, a consultant. Who better to point out the strange gyrations your organization goes through to deliver a product or service—and share better ideas from their experiences?

Continuous Change: You Can’t Do Just One

Does your business do things the way you’ve always done them? Has your competition figured out a better way to do it?

Toyota brought the idea of continuous improvement to manufacturing in recognition of the line worker’s knowledge of specific tasks. The famous example was an employee who stopped the line to say that if a certain workstation was moved a few feet closer, he could simply turn to get a tool rather than taking three steps to do this. His idea saved a number of seconds per operation and he removed himself as a bottleneck.

Lean practices mean creating a culture of feedback and continuous improvement. The organization has to commit to making things better, smarter and faster. Only then will employees and teams get the message and actively participate. It isn’t a “one and done” proposition. Lean means always looking for ways to improve and never settling.

Creatively Lean

Large time gaps between the conception and delivery of complicated projects and initiatives increase the likelihood these will fail.

Take the building of Years into the process, and only right before the advertised launch date was the system tested for the first time! With thousands of rules and features to check, the management team gave themselves an impossibly short few weeks to vet the system. As was famously chronicled, the login system could only handle a few users at a time: only six people were able to sign up on day one!

The solution was a small team working in small iterations. They finished the new version at a fraction of the cost and time used by the initial teams. Small teams can create something, review it, get feedback, and create another version. Short iterations allow a team member to offer opinions and constantly hear from the stakeholders about why the product exists at all.

If your company is embarking on a yearlong project to implement a new IT system—or create a new sales plan, or open new offices overseas—consider iterations that are weekly or bi-weekly rather than quarterly or longer.

You want your teams to fail fast! Failing means there is an opportunity to learn something and make it better.

Focus on Creating Value

Harness the power of your teams by getting everyone focused on outcomes and creating something of value for clients.

Have the teams envision what would happen if they personally delivered the work and invoice together. Is there a disconnect? Or did you deliver something of incredible value at a reasonable price? Always thinking about creating value gives teams a vision about the work they do and puts them in the client’s shoes.

When teams “think Lean,” they can focus on developing the simplest, most important thing first. Then companies can see if they are headed in the right direction. Let’s say a business is planning a rebranding effort. Instead of waiting until the Super Bowl ad is completed, why not see if the new slogan on a piece of paper resonates with customers?

If a new product in its leanest state is completely rejected by customers, it’s a good indication the company hasn’t figured out how to provide value.

The first version of Microsoft Word could create and save documents, edit text and a few more things. More complicated features were added later, like label maker. If they had started with label maker, would anyone have cared about the product? One can even ask if label maker was worth it. How much time and resources were spent developing that feature? Did it sell enough extra copies to justify the investment?

Taking Your First Lean Steps

Going Lean starts at the top. Teams need to see the organization has made “creating value” a priority. To get there, employees must know their ideas are sought out, welcomed and will be listened to.

Are you opening a can of worms? Yes.

Lean isn’t an opportunity to complain about the company or coworkers. Establish norms about what types of improvements the company is looking for and create channels to share information. Also, make sure people know you appreciate their idea even when it isn’t acted on. Engagement is the name of the game, and you will lose it if teams think no one is listening.

With each idea measure the before and after. Give the company an objective platform to work from. The goal is to show early wins from the Lean process so that you can keep it going.

Key Points

  • Doing what you’ve always done doesn’t work in a Lean environment. You must continuously add value for customers or they’ll go somewhere else. The key is employee engagement.
  • Your line staff knows where the problems are. Encourage them to speak up and show that you value their ideas—whether or not you act on each one.
  • Benefit from a pair of fresh eyes. New hires and consultants can give you valuable insights.
  • There’s a reason they call it “continuous improvement.”
  • Small teams and shorter times between progress meetings are more successful at creating new products and services. They allow you to quickly see what doesn’t work and do course corrections.
  • None of this works without your leadership and commitment.

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