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Standardized Vacation

by Mark Donovan
September 10, 2013

Standardized Vacation

by Mark Donovan
September 10, 2013 | Comments (4)

As we near the end of summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of vacation. It may sound like a stretch, but I’d like to propose vacation as a standardized method to test and develop the lean culture and capabilities of your organization.  

I recently returned from having taken six weeks off and away from my business, the women’s knitwear company, Wooden Ships. This wasn’t the kind of vacation where I checked my blackberry every 10 minutes. I truly went on vacation, cleared my head, forgot about it all. I handed the keys to my team and said, “She’s all yours.” And this is the kind of vacation I recommend to all lean managers and executives. Why? Isn’t it better to put your team to a real test in a controlled experiment as opposed to waiting for the unexpected crisis that suddenly puts them in the drivers seat?   

Upon my return, day one was a bit of a shock. What are all of those piles of sweaters? Where are the day by hour charts? What happened to standardized work? Where is my desk? (Just kidding on this last one!). In all seriousness though, it was stunning how much the business slipped in my absence. We were running almost one month late on deliveries and there seemed to be no sense of urgency.  

I immediately hit the gemba and started asking questions line-by-line. I initiated PDCA cycles every place I went. I denounced any undefined WIP. I asked to see standardized work whenever I found an unstable process (that was just about everywhere). I questioned my own failure to establish a leadership team that sustains these activities in my absence. Then I started to formulate a plan regarding how to rectify this problem. I learned a lot from this experience, and interestingly, so did my team.

I asked my production manager: Why it is different when I am away? She said, “because you are not out there on the floor every day checking results and setting high expectations.” Lesson learned! The contrast between how things were just before I returned and two weeks later was striking and has made a very strong impression on the team.  

It has taken me 21 years of mistakes to get to where I am now in my learning curve. If I don’t step out of the way and let my key people make some mistakes and learn more lessons on their own, how will they make it to the next level? How will they develop their own capabilities as leaders and coaches? Still, it is exceptionally difficult to do just that—to step away. In fact, I would say it is next to impossible to sit back as an owner and let a decision stand that you believe will damage the business. Yet, don’t we often learn some of our greatest lessons from our worst decisions and then poka yoke them for the future?   

If you are one of those leaders who is able to sit back and let your key leaders take ownership of key business decisions, more power to you. If, like me, you are very hands on, I suggest this: take a nice long vacation (the next chance you get) and give your team some real room to grow. You might just be surprised by what you learn, especially upon returning to work. Then be sure to reflect with your team about what everyone learned in the process and make the necessary adjustments to your standardized work for management so that the learning is put into action and sustained.

Let me know how it goes!

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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4 Comments | Post a Comment
Stephen K September 14, 2013
2 People AGREE with this comment

Mike -


This is such a good observation. By stepping back you will see what kind of leadership and culture are really present. Any orgainzation would do well to understand this concept.

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Mark Donovan September 18, 2013
Thanks for your comments Stephen

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Erin September 23, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Great article! This underscores the absolute need to have a balanced organization that thinks 'lean' at every level. Owners, execs, and top line leaders must set the tone, expectation, vision, direction of the company, and goals. As great as being 'hands on' can be for motivation: it may also handicap the middle management. What's the Production Mangers standard of work? Why aren't they setting the expectation level for the team and supporting the goals from the Exec Level? I'm sure there's a Chinese Proverb somewhere that says: "in everything, there must be balance".

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Mark Donovan September 27, 2013
Great points Erin.  It is so important for everyone to be working at the right level and on the right things.  This is an on going challenge.  We have been weak on standardized work for management and know it is a key element in improving our lean culture.  As with everything else it is always back to the fundamentals.  Thanks for taking the time to comment

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