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Seeking: Checklist for a Sense of Urgency

By Jon Miller Updated on May 19th, 2017


“The most important factors for success are patience, a focus on long term rather than short-term results, reinvestment in people, product, and plant, and an unforgiving commitment to quality.”

This is a quote from Robert McCurry, former Executive VP of Toyota Motor Sales. It’s a great quote which captures in broad brushstrokes some of the essential characteristics of successful lean companies: long-term thinking, a focus on developing people, and kaizen. At the same time, to companies struggling with short-term challenges, these words can seem like happy talk. Many of us feel like we need to take action now, ideally not at the cost of the long-term, people or quality but to see results today. This is a delicate balance. We need to think long-term, but act each day with urgency.
This has to begin with leadership. From Jeffrey Liker’s book The Toyota Way:

The biggest crisis a company faces is when the leaders believe there is no crisis or do not feel a passionate sense of urgency to continuously improve the way they work.

FC is an in-house lean manufacturing consultant who coordinates the training and implementation. Lean is new to this organization, with most of the focus being on 5S for the past two years, with a recent interest in the other aspects of lean. A few weeks ago FC asked in an e-mail whether we had a checklist to gauge the sense of urgency of the staff. We don’t have such a checklist.
Although by no means a full checklist on a sense of urgency, at a minimum I would ask the following of FC’s leadership:

  • Do we have a clear and articulated vision of “the ideal”?
  • Do we have a firm grasp of our current situation based on facts we have confirmed with our own eyes?
  • Do we have a sufficiently strong consensus on the problem (the gap between ideal and current state) so that we can begin breaking down this problem into actionable chunks?

Harvard Prof and author John Kotter places creating a sense of urgency as job #1 in a successful transformation in his Why Transformations Fail:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Form a powerful guiding coalition
  3. Create a vision
  4. Communicate the vision
  5. Empower others to act on the vision
  6. Plan for and create short-term wins
  7. Consolidate improvements and sustain
  8. Institutionalize the new approaches

We could view this as a high-level road map for implementing lean or any other major transformation. “It’s all about the people” and “it’s all about leadership” if we consider that steps 1 – 5 are PLAN in the PDCA cycle, all related to change management and getting the mindset right. Step 6 is the DO or implementation as a pilot, step 7 is the CHECK and 8 is the ACT.

The conventional wisdom is that at least 80% of the leadership team need to be removed safely from their comfort zone. We all strive for comfort, but in the comfort zone there is no sense of urgency. Leaders especially must venture out of this zone in order to lead. Safely, because otherwise they will find themselves in the fear zone and fight their way back to the comfort zone – not a productive use of leadership energy. Organizations that make it through a crisis emerge stronger and it is part of a leader’s role to guide their team deliberately and safely through these fires.

According to Kotter, having a sense of urgency is at the top of the list for success or failure of a transformation effort. Yet a crisis (a gap that triggers a sense of urgency) is a relative thing, a question of how you perceive your circumstance. How do we measure whether we have a necessary sense of urgency?

What do you think? Please share your views and insights on the subject of how to gauge an organization’s sense of urgency.

  1. Robert

    June 26, 2009 - 1:11 am

    “Sense of urgency” and “panic” is not far away from each other. The problem is, how to create urgency and avoid panic. If i say “our company has a great problem with sales” it could create fear of layoffs, that could lead to the problem, that good employees leave the company…

  2. Jon Miller

    June 26, 2009 - 12:14 pm

    Excellent point Robert. It is a question of the distance between the comfort zone and the fear zone. Somewhere outside of the comfort zone the fear zone begins. This again is often a question of perception. We fear what we can’t control, and we can’t control what we don’t understand. So “we have a problem with sales” is scary if we have no idea why, and no power to change it. If we look at the facts and understand what we need to do, we can turn this fear into courage.

  3. John Santomer

    June 27, 2009 - 9:33 am

    The corporate culture of working in the “comfort zone” is what hinders most “Kaizen” processes. Resistance to change stems from fear. “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering”. First name your fear one must to conquer it. It does not need Master Yoda’s 800 years of wisdom to recognize this. Rocket science it is not. “Do or do not; there is no try.”
    To trigger urgency aside from a crisis, especially emanating from middle management; corporate entity should be mature enough to embrace the “No Blame” culture and pursue the spirit of Kaizen “outside” its comfort zones. Being true leaders of the company, top management should be the embodiment of “Kaizen changes” regardless of magnitude. As all Kaizen procedures, soon a “comfort zone” will be reached.
    Question: When is it time for another Kaizen step to be taken? When does a Kaizen process applied and sustained become in itself a “comfort zone”?
    We all agreed – in this world, nothing is permanent but change. Only the set of priorities that the major stake holders perceive shall dictate the urgency of the next “Kaizen” process to take effect. For sure, it should not reach a time until the KPI’s start to level off.

  4. John Santomer

    June 27, 2009 - 9:42 am

    Commenting on Popular Posts:
    When trying to access Kaizen : Jedi Kaizen: Is the Force with you? – the article does not fit the page and the rest of the text can not be read or scrolled down to see the rest of the write up. GembaPantaRei text logo and background still need some work. The navigation is still a lot of work but the changes are stating to take shape. Good luck. BTW, when do we know the changes are already final?

  5. sharma

    June 27, 2009 - 10:06 am

    Dear Jon,
    You have again raised a relevant issue to suit the current economic scenario.
    I have a few suggestions :
    How to create a sense of urgency???
    1)Just like in TPS we reduce some inventory here and there to surface the problems, we need to reduce the various other inventories(Information inventory, Cash “inventory”, Manpower “inventory”, etc.).
    (Cash “inventory” – temporarily remove some of the surplus/existing funds from the system and see what happens). React with urgency.
    (Manpower “inventory” – temporarily send your “star” performer in sales on a foreign study tour/assignment/holiday and see what happens).
    Reduce your “bench” of new empolyees temporarily. React with urgency.
    2) “Things you can’t measure, you can’t manage.”
    Develop metrics and standards. Market-share is one of the important metrics here, which shows where we stand in the current scenario and are we drifting away? Market-share in a way also validates our policies. Thats why the Japanese are so keen on Market-share. React with urgency.
    NOTE : Being just Market-share driven is a big hazard.
    3) 5 WHAT-IFs :
    This is similiar to “5 WHYs”. Ask yourself What-if questions of worst case scenarios. React with urgency.

  6. Jon Miller

    June 27, 2009 - 10:10 am

    Hi Sharma
    Very good points. The one about reducing inventory (or any excess slack) to expose problems and reduce the comfort zone is especially apt for lean.

  7. Jon Miller

    June 29, 2009 - 9:05 pm

    Hi John
    The glitch under Popular posts as well as a few others have been fixed.

  8. John Santomer

    July 4, 2009 - 12:55 am

    Oh hi Jon!
    Yeah thanks! I’ve never had so much fun jumping here and there in your blogs. I’ll surely inform you if I encounter some “glitch” along the way. Hopefully the adventure will be as learning and enjoyable as always. I hope all your other readers have taken notice of the hard work you have put in on the changes. I have more points surely coming your way to keep you “out of your comfort zone”! Just keeping your “sense of urgency” in tip top shape. (Chuckles!) 😉

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