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Advice from the Gemba: Keeping Senior Leadership Committed

by Jean Cunningham, Ken Eakin & Chris Vogel
July 13, 2016

Advice from the Gemba: Keeping Senior Leadership Committed

by Jean Cunningham, Ken Eakin & Chris Vogel
July 13, 2016 | Comments (0)

The cost savings of lean are not always apparent in the short term. If your senior leadership was skeptical going into the transformation to begin with, this situation can easily make them lose confidence and pull the plug. What's the best way to keep them onboard and committed? Three lean practitioners share their thoughts.


Ken Eakin (Sr. Advisor, Operational Excellence, Export Development Canada)

Ken EakinIn any lean transformation, whether it is going well or not, you have to engage senior leadership. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but it has to involve them directly. Explore what matters to them beyond just financial performance. What problems are they trying to solve? What keeps them up at night? If you can use lean techniques to solve a problem that affects them, it buys lean a lot more credibility and longevity.

In early 2016, the President of my company communicated explicitly to the entire corporation that he wanted a culture where people had more active, engaged, and entrepreneurial mindsets. He had observed that decisions were taking too long and meetings would often end only with a commitment to reconvene again at a later date, while all sorts of informal side conversations would happen in between.

Our “lean team” took this as an opportunity. This was a problem to be solved! Two of my fellow coaches led a workshop with senior leaders to have them identify concrete, specific, observable behaviours that they would like to see (and not see) at meetings. The output of that workshop was typed up on an 8.5”x11” laminated sheet that each of them could carry with them as a little reminder of what constituted on-track and off-track behaviours.

Then these two coaches started attending meetings at which senior leaders were present. At the end of the meeting, all the meeting participants would take five minutes to check-in on whether they felt they exhibited “on-track” behaviours during the meeting and what they observed in their colleagues at the table.

What happened? Better meetings! Opinions were voiced at the table, not in the hallways. More trust and respect for each other. They’re improving the decision-making process. And they’re still working on it. It’s not always easy, they’ve realized.

“Better meetings” is not a quantifiable outcome that shows up on financial statements. But it’s a meaningful outcome to senior leaders.

If you can get senior leadership to understand lean transformation as a behavioural change and not just a quick fix that will boost productivity, there is a much better chance they will acknowledge both that it takes time and also that it is the right thing to do.


Jean Cunningham (Founder, Jean Cunningham Consulting)

Jean CunninghamThis is such a common question from lean leaders, so a good one to address.

Typical problems I see unnerve leadership include lack of followup, not moving people to the value add work, incomplete understanding/ownership of the new role of the supervisor/manager related to the changes in process, and last not understanding that generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) accounting statements give a false negative when WIP and Finished Good inventory is reduced…which is the first impact of reducing batch size, implementing flow in production.

Using problem solving thinking, the first step would be to assess the current state. What is the gap in expectations? Is it focused in a particular area or metric? See if you can target a specific problem you want to address. Maybe the problem is we expected to see a reduction in lead time. Or improvement of 2 points in profit. Or, or, or. Based on the specific problem, then do the Five Whys or other root cause analysis. The root cause will drive the action steps.

Once you have this problem-solving done, share the results and next steps.

Overall, keeping not only leadership but employees as well onboard and motivated depends on lots of communication about the successes and challenges throughout the organization. I feel most organizations do not nearly communicate enough. It is fun to be a part of a winning team, but if you don’t know the score it can be boring!


Chris Vogel (President and CEO, Compass Affiliates)

Chris VogelWhen the numbers don’t quite reflect the investment, senior leadership should be nervous and perhaps skeptical. However, there may be a few questions for you to consider before their momentum wanes:

  • Was lean demonstrated to them with focus on a functional area that allows benefits to be visible? Focusing on creating or improving standard work in one area, requiring work to flow and utilizing the management system always yields results. Which begs the question…
  • Was the current state process and its outcomes (cost, quality, delivery, customer experience, etc.) documented such that there is a baseline with which to contrast improvements? Anecdotal results won’t cut it.
  • Were unnecessary resources actually removed from the process or did we allow people, technology or work materials to persist in the improved process? Reallocating people to other value adding work is crucial but often feels punitive. Taking staff or other resources from managers is not traditionally rewarded in terms of career growth, and therefore culturally resisted.
  • Did we further develop capabilities of the people doing the work, therefore creating a new work environment that is engaging and visibly positive? Even if we did, does senior leadership see/engage the new environment?

Improving the work, developing people to solve problems at their source, and creating an effective lean management system will drive transformational results in terms that senior leaders value: tangible market, customer, and financial results and being a highly sought-after place to work. Both need to be outcomes of a lean transformation and proof of both will keep senior leadership onboard and motivated.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  culture,  leadership
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