I’ll always appreciate working with one particular company who brought a lean coach on board, because the impact this person had amazed me. After relative stagnation with traditional management models, our business and thinking at this company changed, grew, and improved more substantially over 18 months with this lean coach than it had in a decade prior.
Here’s what we learned:
#5: Seek Countermeasures Versus Solutions
Before: As Socrates said, “There is no solution, seek it lovingly.” For those of you forming a lean “swat team” to descend upon an area, observe, study, and fix it… However well-intentioned, I caution you to consider another way. I was a part of an effort like this, and thinking ourselves a respectful group of “solutionists,” I humbly admit, we failed. That approach didn’t sustain because we were “fixing for” versus “learning with” and admittedly, because we thought up all the answers in a conference room far away from the ‘distractions’ of the work and the team.
After: With our coach, we learned the importance of thinking deeply about problems (versus blindly optimizing processes), developing countermeasures (versus determining solutions), and involving the team to run experiments and learn (PDCA). With the guidance of this coach, I went from using an “Art of War” mindset for getting my work done to “Managing to Learn” how to better serve our customers.
#4: Understand the Components of an Effective System
Before: Think about the conflicting information and priorities people are called to manage every day. We’re taught from a young age to compartmentalize. Silos get built and blinders go on and, yikes… our teams are in survival mode. Many people on the front lines are just… coping. So a “divide and conquer” mentality builds.
After: Perfect systems are present everywhere in nature (ref: solar, circulatory, ecosystems), but an organization is man-made. Our coach helped us remove the proverbial blinders, dismantle silos, and understand the components of an effective system. In man-made systems, there are specific components used to build in accountability, sustainability and allow the system to function effectively. System Thinking by people at every level is not a given (nor a luxury), it’s a game-changer. Learning how to properly build and operate in sustainable systems promoted change for the better.
#3: Keep the “I” in SIPOC
Before: In one area of our business, we went through a Value Stream Mapping exercise. The ensuing “sipocalypse” yielded an amazing revelation. We, as an organization, were so focused on outputs that we’d not only neglected upkeep of the processes, but we’d completely overlooked the needed Inputs (the “I” in SIPOC), leaving them unknown, implicit or incomplete.
Because of our disproportionate focus on outputs, we knowingly created and passed defects! In fact, we were expected to. You know the saying “garbage in, garbage out?” It had become our job (not to add value but) to strain and filter the “garbage in” transforming it into enough information to push work to the next step (only to have it ultimately returned for rework).
After: Keeping the “I” in SIPOC enabled us to correlate our rate of rework and recognize that pushing work into the system faster didn’t improve delivery, it crippled our through-put. And coaching us to our own authority over our processes, to see and eliminate waste, and to focus on high quality inputs – these things enabled and empowered us to fully engage and own our work, taking initiative to continuously improve it.
#2: Know Your Purpose
Before: Ask any one of us the “purpose” of our business and we would’ve answered with a nice tagline about the products and services we delivered. When pressed for a better answer, we might offer “Because our customers ordered it…” (but that really isn’t a purpose).
Without deeply understanding purpose, focus gets misdirected, people revert to comfortable silos, and band aid solutions (optimizing waste) are implemented without ever truly understanding your organization’s problems.
After: Our coach took the painstaking time to walk us through the subtleties between purpose, vision, mission, values, principles, and standards. I learned that “Purpose” is a concentric theme (like a ripple) manifesting in many initiatives connected by a common center & purpose is fractal (always maintaining its shape at all scales of measurement). Purpose is overarching, and a shared purpose ignites and empowers a culture of continuous improvement.
#1: Aim for a Target of One
Before: After establishing our target state, clearly defining the SIPOC associated with each step, level loading the work and forming a pilot “cell” of cross-functional teammates aligned to a product family, we struggled to determine the takt time. This was knowledge work, where much of the transaction was shared with our customers. The workload was “unpredictable.” We wrestled with setting guidelines like “pass 5 orders a day” through the cell, but it was said that 5 orders could take 10 minutes or 2 days depending upon complexity.
After: Having a coach guide us through our improvement work wasn’t so that he could calculate takt. It wasn’t so he could nod and give us a gold star when we got it “right” or make us fancy dashboards or referee arguments. What was so valuable was to be coached through our improvement efforts; his role was to help us discover for ourselves the underlying importance of safety and quality in everything we did.
Of all the lessons learned (or earned), the #1 way my thinking changed was to focus on “a target of one.” Ultimately we came to recognize that it truly didn’t matter if we passed 5 or 10 or 24 jobs through the cell. The only job that mattered was the one in front of us and the only thing that mattered about it was that (from supplier to customer) it was done right. In this way, our coach enabled us find clarity in our work and raise the standards and quality of our customer relationships.
Coaching for development is different than being managed. Lean coaching in our case was not directing an improvement swat team or teaching lean workshops… It was a steadfast commitment to people, and to developing capability versus creating dependency. If you have the opportunity to work with a lean coach, I encourage you to embrace it. The capabilities you build with the guidance of a skilled coach will serve you, your organization, and your customers for a lifetime.
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