Is Mean Lean Better than No Lean?

Often lean implementations are begun not after great thought and deliberation but because of a conviction that waste is evil and there is no time like the present. Is mean lean better than no lean? I thought this was a rhetorical question, but two cases in recent memory (which we will not detail but the guilty will acknowledge) involving leading by aggression, communicating by confounding and teamwork by intrigue made me wonder at the wisdom of organizations that rush off to pick the low-hanging fruits without taking the mean out of their lean implementation.

The top three organizational fundamentals at risk of making lean management into mean management are leadership, communication and teamwork. Here are the infamous trio in all of their dysfunctional glory.

Most normal resistance to change can be overcome if these three organizational fundamentals are taken into account throughout the lean transformation process. We might say that the quality, cost and deliver of these organizational elements are adequacy, consistency and relevance. For example inadequate communication means that there is an insufficient frequency will end up cost more time and effort to get the message across and to get things done. Consistency of communication means lack of variation between messages given by different leaders to different groups at different times. And relevance of communication is a measure of whether the message being communicated is the correct one at the correct time. Another aspect of relevance is exactly how much information is communicated at any given time. Too little or too much information and the message loses relevance, and so forth.

Leadership at its best within a lean organization is a combination of checking on standards, teaching and developing people and enabling short-term (tactical) and long-term (strategic) problem solving. Here are it’s faults that make lean into mean:

Inadequate training and development. This can be both of and by leadership. By nature of being responsible for entire organizations, leaders have much within their sphere of influence to be curious about. It’s a dangerous thing when a leader is secure in their knowledge and convictions, and does not go forth and seek out more facts. A measure of a good leader should be how much learning she does as well as how much the next generation of leaders is being taught. Developing people is a long-term investment but it is every bit as important for improving performance in the short term.

Inconsistency between teaching and doing by leaders. This is simply leading by example, practicing what one preaches, and walking the talk.

Irrelevance in applying what was learned. We often see continuous improvement training being conducted to fill a certain requirement for certification, promotion, or arbitrary measure of lean maturity. While expanding education and development is a good thing, if it is not practical the application will be inconsistent. This leads to the erosion of the value of what was learned and the credibility of lean management system itself. Relevance of the lean principles learned to the doing of daily work of checking performance, enabling problem solving and teaching is essential.

Communication is the conveyance of information to enable desired action toward a purpose.

It is needed at the beginning and throughout the process of making change happen. It is a deliberate daily activity as well as a strategic priority of senior leaders. Once people are connected and empowered to function as teams, communication is the lifeblood of quick response to changing situations that result in high performance. There are communication pitfalls to avoid:

Inadequate communication. In the early phases this is most often a result of waiting to explain the lean program until the leadership understands it more fully. It is a result of not wanting to look uninformed, or like fools if detailed questions are asked. But there is no need to wait. Leaders can always explain the intent of the lean effort, the actions taken so far to understand and plan it, what may be next, and take questions. Simply put, the countermeasure to inadequate communication is to communicate early and often.

Inconsistent communication. Those of us who are on the receiving end of communication dislike feeling confused, especially when we suspect that the messenger is responsible for that confusion. Changing the message can be acceptable, but not changing the message without explaining why. Putting the lean effort aside for a while without clearly explaining why is also a sure way to create a sense of inconsistency. A simple, resilient message that gains a high degree of consensus across leadership (communicators) is the best way to maintain consistency.

Irrelevant communication. We sometimes see leaders adding in their own agendas or pet messages within the communication. Leaders, you are not being nearly as subtle as you may think you are. While the consistency of repeating your own agendas is a good thing, weigh the relevance of any added content carefully. Limit the communication to the most important thing that needs to be understood right now. If the content of the message on lean implementation being communicated is a good one, various other issues should be taken care of when people understand the one most important thing right now.

Teamwork is what makes groups of people function better together than they can on their own. The deliberate building of temporary, purpose-specific micro-communities (teams) is an essential part of the lean management system.

Inadequate development as a team. If it was in all of our natures to always play nicely with each other, we wouldn’t need kindergarten teachers or the rule of law to keep out of trouble. The development of teamwork, like kaizen, is a never-ending pursuit. A group of the excellent individual players will almost always be defeated by the best team of above average team players. Teamwork isn’t something you put in place once and check off as done, it is something to recognize, value and strengthen daily.

Inconsistent performance as a team. There are many possible reasons including a lack of team performance measurement, a lack of follow up or other variation in the method or man elements. The single most important thing a team can do is to develop a strong alignment (or relevance) between the purpose of team activities, the purpose of lean implementation and their individual goals. Members of a cohesive team will typically figure out the rest.

Irrelevance to the team. This is one of the greatest risks in engaging people successfully. Some teams can’t see the relevance of the lean program and its goals to the work they do daily. This can be due to the fact that the lean effort is starting off in the factory and the team is in a sales office far away from the action. This can be a very real cause of confusion, and is best avoided by having the leader of this group set small but meaningful interim targets that simple lean activities can facilitate. Another type of irrelevance may be that issues raised by the team for improvement and the priorities raised by the organization do not match. Each may seem irrelevant to the other. This misunderstanding can be avoided if the principle of respect for people and mutual help is emphasized; local improvements have value simply because they engage the creativity of people and make working lives better in small ways.

Consistency, adequacy and relevance in planning and execution of your lean implementation is essential to preventing your lean performance from becoming mean (unkind) or mean (near the statistical norm). It’s a pun, but the reason so many lean implementations struggle is that they are not addressing these organizational or people factors that make well-intentioned lean into mean lean. As a result, they slip backwards, revert to type or regress. In a mean lean deployment, organizations find themselves who once were on the leading edge of performance improvement regressing towards the mean.

When lean is understood and implemented correctly, there is clear and frequent communication of overall mission and purpose of the organization and how lean fits into this picture. As a result, and starting with leadership, roles and responsibilities are clarified. These are made visible so lack of adherence stands out immediately as an abnormality and corrective action can be taken. People are trained in the fundamentals of supervision and daily discipline is built into how the team works together. People are empowered to make changes to their work. The result is sustained positive results and positive attitude.