We are all familiar with the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. While it is easy to get caught up in data analysis and reports, this adage holds true for first hand experience as well. It could even be said that some experiences are simply beyond description. – you have to see and “taste” it for yourself. Words and pictures only provide a visual perspective and cannot capture the full ambiance of the moment. Even video fails to provide a sense of the true atmosphere. In the same sense, Lean leadership requires executives and staff at all levels to move beyond the reports and the pictures and experience things for themselves – first hand.
We are quite sure that the Olympic experience in Vancouver was radically different from the experience of watching the events on television. Nothing can replace the actual experience of being there although technology continues to bring us closer. Most of us can also identify with governments that do not seem to be “in touch” with our present-day reality. As these analogies attempt to demonstrate, it is imperative for leaders and executives to directly observe and participate in the lean initiatives and activities throughout the organization. It is equally important to maintain an active presence as part of the ongoing lean activities.
We recognize that it can be difficult to get even a small glimpse of reality especially when most executive visits are accommodated by the typical “dog and pony” show. One successful executive was known for making unannounced visits to his facilities to get a true sense of the business – when the visits were unexpected. This created a “Be ready any time – all the time” culture. There was no time to prepare for “The big boss is coming today” and in reality, we shouldn’t have to.
Data gathering and analysis may actually sacrifice effectiveness for efficiency. As an example, consider the concept of employee opinion surveys. Employees are free to answer questions anonymously and without fear of repercussions or reprimand. The purpose of the survey is to gather objective data from the employees regarding specific aspects of their work environment / company life. The data is typically compiled, analyzed, and summarized into a neat power point presentation for all the employees to see “how well they did”. The management team, in turn, is expected to prepare an action plan to address opportunities for improvement identified in the survey.
Does the report accurately reflect the real opportunities? In many cases, the answer is, “No, not really”. Does it provide evidence that opportunities may exist? The answer in this case is, “Yes, highly probable.” The report may indicate that opportunities exist, however, the source for improvement may may be concealed by the how the question was framed. Often times, questions are presented in such a way that a clear definitive response can’t be given. While it is possible for people to include comments, few seldom do unless they know their concerns or opinions are truly valued by the company.
Do we really need surveys to get a pulse for what is happening inside the company? In our opinion, the answer is, “No”. An effective, highly engaged, management team should understand the culture of the company without having to rely on a survey to help them “manage” the facility. People interact with each other daily. Surveys are a snapshot in time and are usually conducted annually. The other pitfall with surveys is the lead / lag time between the survey date and the actual presentation of the data. In a fast paced industry, many things can change over a very short period of time. The manufacturing sector and more specifically the North American automotive industry can attest to this.
Another reason for being “in the moment” is to fully experience that which can’t be described by words alone. Anything other than “being there” requires us to use our creative imagination. When someone has not been exposed to the very experience you are attempting to describe, you are forced to make reference to comparable items – yet they are not the same. How many times have you heard, “It tastes like chicken!” as someone attempts to describe food that you haven’t tried before. Just try to describe the taste, smell, or touch of something (heat / humidity / cold / frostbite / pain / g-Force) without making a reference to objects or things that are similar – yet different.
In summary, implementing and sustaining lean initiatives requires participation from all levels of the organization – not just to observe and review data, but to actually become an integral part of the activities. Communication is an inextricable part of the lean culture as we have learned through our discussion regarding the Toyota recall. We identified that Toyota’s infrastructure may have become an obstacle to effective communication in the company.
One way to keep the communication lines open is to remove the walls that separate executives and management from the front line. The only way to do this effectively, is to be a “regular” on the front line. You will earn the trust and respect of your team and they will communicate with you as they do with their fellow colleagues.
The culture of a company is one of the many strengths that must be supported and fostered by the executive leadership team. Leadership participation is a prerequisite to successful lean integration. Embrace the opportunities and seize the moment.
We can only imagine what it would be like to …
Until Next Time – STAY lean!