When I was ten years old, I had a dream. No, not the ‘sound asleep on my pillow’ kind of dream. More like a ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’ kind of dream. Yes, I had a dream. My dream was to travel to the North Pole and tour Santa’s workshop. It may sound silly to you, but to a wildly imaginative ten-year old boy (soon to embark on his career journey experimenting with electricity, blown fuses, tripped circuit breakers, and the occasional small fire) this was the real deal.
Phase I of my dream was, of course, the planning stage. Not wanting to take this step lightly, I committed serious time to ensuring every potential situation being painstakingly thought out and debugged. Five minutes later, my list of required provisions was complete:
- Assortment of snacks (my assumption was this may be a lengthy trip)
- A flashlight (for traveling at night – this would enable me to make good time)
- A compass (I knew I needed to keep heading North)
Looking back, I’m glad I never made the trip. I can’t quite recall what stopped me from pursuing such a noble task…maybe when I woke up I realized it was a school day. Regardless, I likely would have been very cold and traversing Northern Canada would have proven a significant challenge.
Lean thinking can no longer be categorized as a new ideal. Lean manufacturing concepts, considered to be cutting edge in the 80’s & 90’s, have spread globally at a steady pace; paving the way for today’s lean thinking frontiers such as healthcare, service delivery, and project management.
With this vast history of lean implementation trial and error now fading from view in the rearview mirror, one would think we have amassed enough data points along the lean journey curve to avoid the unsuccessful attempts we witness today.
I’m amazed at just how many organizations still view a lean implementation strategy as a ‘one-time’ event:
- Assortment of snacks (the kick-off meeting should be entertaining and appeal to a wide audience)
- A slide show (magical beams of light to keep everyone focused)
- Unveil the ‘Lean Compass’ (announce we’re heading True North)
Sound and/or look familiar? Where are we heading?
It is hard to believe there are managers, directors, VP’s & CEO’s still today that believe if they hand someone (or a newly developed team of ‘A-players’) a lean compass (metaphor) with the directive of leading the masses from point A to point B arriving at the promised land of reduced costs, better productivity, and improved customer service that the person or group will actually succeed long-term. Toys for everyone, and we all live happily ever after.
After devoting nearly twenty years of my career to lean thinking and having the good fortune to work alongside some very talented folks implementing lean ideas, I would like to uncover the two major reasons I’ve found as to why this strategy so often fails, rather than succeed:
- You’re on your own – this is what you or the group realize after being handed the compass as you step out into the cold, then watch the manager, director, VP or CEO retreat into the warmth of their office. This action has the following consequences:
- Other folks in the organization now have a choice. Support new lean efforts, oftentimes in cold (difficult, unclear, uncertain) conditions with little help and visibility from management OR retreat into the warmth of their busy schedules.
- You end up spending (wasting) too much of your time providing reports, presentations, and status updates to all those who sit by the fires of unaccountability and non-respectfulness RATHER THAN spending time implementing value-added ideas.
- Those responsible for handing you the compass think the journey ends – lean thinking is supported by two pillars; Respect For People and Continuous Improvement. It’s not about getting from point A to the North Pole.
I believe with serious conviction that the difference between successfully implementing lean anywhere and failure, involves just one simple thing…
Changing your thinking.
Do you know why you can’t find Santa’s workshop using a compass? He wisely built it at the geographic North Pole. A compass always points to the magnetic North Pole. Yes, there’s a difference, and the magnetic North Pole (along with the South Pole) keeps moving. Don’t believe me? Read all about it here…maybe it will help start the process of changing your thinking.
Leaders today who think they can simply hand someone a compass to get to the ‘lean North Pole’ set themselves and their organizations up for failure. Customer needs and economic conditions are moving targets that require and challenge us to continually readjust our lean efforts to better match those we serve. Lean will always be about a continuous journey. Long-term success is only guaranteed when those under our authority have our full respect and know they are not in it alone. Working together we can accomplish anything that comes our way.
Who knows…we may even get a tour of Santa’s workshop. Dare to dream.