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Dear Gemba Coach,

I work for a large governmental organization that has decided to do lean. I have been interested in lean for some time, yet am concerned about the current program: it appears as if our leaders intend to conduct across the board cost-cutting workshops to eliminate waste. This certainly does not seem to be the right way to do lean, but I have very little freedom to change their approach. What can I do?

You pose a deep question that many people will identify with. In fact, you raise a philosophical question that goes way beyond lean. In a world of interlinked cause and effect, what freedom do any of us have? Most of us are caught in a game of falling dominoes where our individual actions make very little difference. So where, and how, can we find freedom to act when we have no power and few options?

I believe that lean practice truly has something to contribute to this fundamental challenge. The Gemba reveals that work situations can be seen as matters of choice: within the real constraints around us, we all have a great deal of freedom in our attitudes, and hence our choices, and the choices we influence. The question of freedom is often one of values. The lean approach has its own set of values that can be practiced every day, even in the most trying circumstances (of course, as anything in lean, it requires some work).

These values can ultimately help every individual develop more choice, and therefore, more freedom. Let's start with the very core attitudes of lean management: self-development, and developing others. The practice of self-development is essentially about making a daily effort to better understand the cause/effect relationships that underlie day-to-day events. Lean practice helps us see that every event is the result of a process, which is a sequence of dependent, repetitive steps. Rather than be satisfied with the immediate surface reaction to any situation, we all have the freedom to think more deeply about things, ask “why,” and as a result, better understand the deeper processes that lead to specific outcomes.

Back to Deming

These attitudes go hand-in-hand with powerful tools that make them doable. For instance, we can learn how to quickly draw the standard process (how things are supposed to work out without hiccups) on a napkin or on the back of an envelope, which enables us to think about what really happened on the Gemba and identify the gaps between real and ideal. This practice is demanding - not just in time and effort but in developing the discipline to make it work. Anyone can make progress in this area: start by digging deeply into the process behind, or symptoms leading up to, a certain outcome, rather than simply accepting assumptions about how things really are. Again, in most cases you have ample freedom to do so: it's a matter of asking politely.

The other powerful lean tool to help us develop our understanding of any situation is the formal practice of testing and experimentation - the explicit creation of markers for success or failure for every proposed new action. This goes back to the very roots of quality, back to Deming's insistence on knowing how to distinguish a good job from a bad job. Everyone must know how to ask the question of: do I know, in any case, whether I'm doing a good job or a bad job? How would it look? These are by no means easy questions to answer. But we all have the freedom to explore them. Drawing out the outcome we want out of any situation, and then testing it, teaches us a lot about our own understanding of how things work. It also reveals how strongly we are being implicitly pushed by the system one way or the other.

Without starting a fight with our bosses (if senior management of our organization wants something, we're going to have to deliver it!), we can still influence the practice of any new way of working. We can build coherent arguments, influence the debates, help guide the methodology. Knowledge leadership itself can be a powerful form of influence that has nothing to do with actual power or authority. If by self-development you learn to understand situations better, and thereby explain outcomes more clearly and powerfully, then in most cases your own credibility and airtime will increase dramatically. You will have established more clout than your pay grade warrants.

In this sense, self-development naturally leads to developing others. Even if you have no troops and are at the bottom of the pecking order, you still have the freedom of practicing the five tenets of lean management, all of which will develop yourself, and by practice, those you work with. Keep these five basic values in mind always:

Practice Five Basic Values

First, go and see. It's not so hard to get people out of the office regularly by arguing that the group should really go and look for itself. Sure, they won't always do it (meeting rooms are nice and warm, with cookies and coffee), but over time the appeal of having a look first will grow. The skill here lies in finding a close-enough Gemba so that "go and see" is not too much of an investment for people who are not fully committed to the lean ideal of genchi genbutsu. Still any Gemba is better than the meeting room.

Second, challenge. The most powerful way to focus people's minds away from their pet solutions and towards a more productive and workable approach is to find a way to express what a group is trying to do in terms of the challenge: what specifically are we trying to resolve in order to improve the situation? Formulating the challenge, rather than arguing for or against any specific solution, is a matter of skill. This goes back to self-development: as you develop the skills to frame problems in the form of challenges, then you have a better prospect that people will listen to you. Then you can steer the group to a productive evaluation of how well their preferred solutions respond to the challenge. Here again, no one is going to stop you from formulating things in this way. The trick is in learning to do so in a way that other people listen to and accept. This is something that you can learn regardless of your position in the organization.

Third, kaizen. Arguing for step-by-step problem solving rather than one fell swoop usually makes sense in most cases. When confronted with a difficult challenge, most people will want to change the process rather than solve the problems within the process. Here again, even without any power, one can argue that while a large-scale solution is investigated and providers are evaluated, one can still work at better understanding the problems within the existing process - trying to get the people involved in solving these problems one by one. This is a small diversion of resources, and who knows, it might even pay off in a big way. Even if your bosses don't want to listen to this, you still have the freedom to make the case for kaizen. It's not an unreasonable position. Furthermore, the greater your skill at problem solving (and being recognized for it), the more credible you will be on that stance.

Fourth, respect. Today it's a very hard sell to convince managers that the work environment should enable people to perform well, and moreover, that they should be encouraged to improve their own working environment. Still, even if no one else does, you are still free to listen to people and take their problems seriously. Help uncover the systematic causes for defects, errors, and other flaws without blaming people. When we don't know the details of the situation, it's so easy to blame people for complaining. In almost every case, asking 'why' several times will reveal that they are faced with a real difficulty, even though they're not always expressing it clearly. Many times they are too focused on a possible solution rather than a deeper exploration of the problem. The belief that frontline workers are not lazy folks creating excuses for poor performance, and that they must be defended and supported, is lean's biggest departure from any other management system. Workers are the most important people in any outfit because they add the value. Consequently, their point of view is always legitimate, no matter how skewed or whether we can do something about it. Even if you are totally powerless to affect decisions or outcomes, you still have the freedom of taking frontline issues seriously and arguing for their resolution. This is a real choice that we face every day. The lady pushing the mail wagon complains about shoulder ache: do we listen and try to figure out what to do about it, with her, or do we dismiss it as part of the normal gripe from operators?

Fifth, teamwork. Power or authority can't create teamwork across functions. As most senior managers lament, it takes more to get people working together. Teamwork can be formed through a common goal, and developed by one person making a personal commitment to listen to other points of view with an open mind. Remember, understanding someone else's point of view doesn't necessarily mean agreeing with them. But there is no harm in listening. Unfortunately, we often weaken our working relationship out of fear that other perspectives will corrupt our purely formed thought, undermine our convictions, and even weaken our authority. And yet, even without any authority, one can foster teamwork by taking the time to listen to other people's point of view and then reformulate these thoughts for the whole team. This skill is not about freedom as much as it is about self-confidence and people skills. Actively listening across borders will nudge the situation towards more teamwork, even if the movement can be frustratingly slow at times.

Regardless of how high up we are, none of us ever feels we have enough authority or power to get things done the "right way." Yet stick to the lean ideals of self-development and the development of others, rather than thinking about getting more done by acquiring more power. The true danger of power is that it will turn people close to us into instruments of our will rather than working partners, thereby losing their unique contributions. The simple truth is that whether in a position of power or not, all of us have the freedom of learning more every day, and coaching more everyday. Many people only see lean as something that revolutionizes processes. In fact, practicing lean is as much about learning how to master specific attitudes and techniques that can help anyone, at any time, gain more freedom through development of themselves and others.

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