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Postcard from Nashville

by John Shook
May 15, 2018

Postcard from Nashville

by John Shook
May 15, 2018 | Comments (0)

LEI’s 10th Lean transformation summit, in Nashville (next March we’ll be in Houston) focused on how to be better employer. We always try to come up with a theme that resonates with needs we sense permeating the community. This year, employers from manufacturing, R&D, healthcare, and services shared their experience trying to be lean employers in plenary addresses for the Summit’s 700 attendees.

Everywhere we go, executives tell us that their biggest challenge is finding and keeping excellent people. We can’t easily solve all the problems involved in the supply and demand or health of the job market, but we can do a lot about the “keeping” part as well as the “excellent” part. If excellent employees don’t seem to be accessible in your available talent pool, the right question to ask (the problem to be solved, the job to be done) is what can WE do to make all our employees excellent? (This led me to recall the serenity prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference” – seems to fit a good attitude for this situation.)

Jim Womack burned some midnight oil on some important work to articulate for us a new set of thoughts around the question of just what is a lean employer. You can view his slides on this topic, and read his thoughts on the topic here. Jim shared a set of ideas on this, including: introduce daily management starting with front-line work to create basic stability, perform hoshin planning to identify and prioritize your biggest problems/opportunities, continuously improve every value-creating process through kaizen, protect your employees (through social heijuka—predictable schedules, full-time work, steady work in the downturns) and stop making employees the “shock-absorbers for the business.”

Jim shared the Virtuous Spiral of Lean Employment which I have turned into this graphic representation:

Among this year’s practitioner keynotes was my new favorite conference keynote of all time. Dr. Kiame Mahaniah, CEO of the Lynn Community Health Center (LCHC) spoke about the work of this small center in the economically, culturally, and socially diverse community of Lynn, Mass.  The challenges faced by Kiame and LCHC and the entire community of Lynn are immense indeed. Kiame and his predecessor Lori Berry proved, first of all, that it IS possible for a lean transformation to survive a CEO change (Lori and Kiame, supported by Bernadette Thomas, Kim Eng and Alice Lee and the whole LCHC team, decided on the radical approach of actually cooperating in a planful way to transition as seamlessly as possible from CEO A to CEO B, preserving the excellent lean transformation work that began two years ago).  Kiame shared the story of LCHC approach as they address the ambitious question: “How do we transform a whole community by transforming its biggest asset?”

By the way, Kiame will be speaking tonight at LEI on the topic of "God's Work and Good Jobs: The Shared Space Between Social Justice, the Lean Movement, and Mainstream Business Practice." Tickets (which are free) are almost gone, but we will find a way to share highlights of his talk.

My favorite quote of the event came from Tyler Shilling, CEO and founder of the Shilling Robotics division of TechnipFMC, who shared his trials and troubles escaping the trap in which he had placed himself of being the answer man for every difficult problem his employees faced. Upon being continually pressed for yes or no answers, and continually squirming away from being cornered into giving overly simplistic responses, Tyler came up with, “I am generally in favor of things that work and not in favor of things that don’t work. Now, please figure out which among your options has the greatest chance of working better than the others.” A great example of true set-based thinking!

Now that Nashville is behind us, we are doing our reflection in anticipation of planning for next year. We know where and when the summit we will be (Houston, March 25-28, 2019). As for the theme, well, we have some time to think about it. We need to grasp the situation (translation: understand your needs) and turn that into a theme. For me, it’ll be hard to top 2018’s “Want Better Employees? Be a Better Employee.”  Or will it? Got any ideas?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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