It’s one of the biggest misconceptions with what we do as Lean/Continuous Improvement practitioners. We’re efficiency experts, so we can fix everything! Companies who have hopped on the improvement parade seek out new lean and CI roles for their organization, or for consultants to look from the outside in. “Please, oh please, lean wizard, fix us! We know not what we do. Make us productive, make us efficient, and make us more money!”
Well, okay, but I don’t have a magic wand, and I can’t use Avada Kedavra on waste. I’m not The Lean Genie (though that has a pretty nice ring to it). You can’t rub my lamp and use three wishes to make everything “sorted, straightened, and shined.” And I’m not your fortune teller. I can’t wave my hands over the company and see its future, its operations and inefficiencies therein. It’s called a “Value Stream Map”, not “A Crystal Ball”. We have to work together to drill down into the right processes, experiment with the right tools, and see how they can work for us. Then it’s about making improvements together.
Many moons ago I started at a new company in a CI role, and everyone was hyped for the new CI "Coven" to come in and sprinkle magic dust on everything. One thing we decided to do first was implement 5S. We underwent the necessary training, we worked to communicate the importance of 5S, and we really over communicated, which appeared to garner real buy-in from management and employees alike.
When day 1 hit, I found myself standing alone in the department with a handful of red tags and whole lot of enthusiasm. Tumbleweeds passing me by as crickets jammed away on their little violins and a dusty wind whooshed through the air playing percussion to my lonely band. I sought out the manager of the department I’d been working with and when we spoke I received a cliché response: “Sorry, we don’t have time for that right now.” This was a person, who only days prior, had been championing the arrival of Lean, thanking me for coming on to help drive an improvement program by starting small.
At that moment I had an epiphany; they honestly expected me to do this alone. When I explained that’s not how it works, I got a “deer in the headlights” look in response. “Wait, WE have to work on this, too?” Heck, yes you do! Sadly, the trend continued the more I traversed the company facilitating kaizen events. Everyone seemed to expect me to burst through the door a top an elephant draped in gold and rubies singing, "You ain’t never had a friend like me..." like The Genie from Disney's Aladdin.
Eventually we worked through our woes and moved on to larger projects. This time around we decided to put the project selection in the hands of the operators. We spent three full days brainstorming and going through a process of selection on their “Problem Statement” and ways to implement changes to eliminate or improve it. This proved to be a great success, mostly due to the fact that the team no longer viewed the change as coming from CI or Management. They took ownership of the change and drove it themselves. And nobody had the expectation that CI would wave a wand and transform their problem.
Now, for leaders and CI professionals, it’s not practical to rely on the team you’re working with to institute every change that’s needed each time you want to improve. Sometimes you have to give direction, but you always want to work with the team so that everyone is involved in what goes into decision-making and outcomes.
In the end, the best any of us can do is bring a deep knowledge and awareness of how systems and processes work. We help people identify and eliminate waste by asking good questions and extracting raw ideas and answers out people who may not know they have them. The folks with the untapped abilities to improve the system are the real “Luke Skywalkers” and “Harry Potters” of the business. Very likely, they are also the people who may not think anyone is listening. That’s why I try to listen as much as I coach. It doesn’t add value to the organization when CI practitioners to just “do it ourselves,” and we can’t force change. If you try to force change, you also rob everyone of the opportunity to learn new skills and work against yourself when it comes to encouraging a new culture of improvement in your company.
At its core, lean thinking and practice is not about “getting buy-in”; it’s about respect and teamwork. If we don’t respect each other and work together, we really will have to rely on magic for any real change to occur.