Three Risks of Implementing Lean without Policy Deployment

A weather vane with a cockerel on top points to the north

Ideally the goals of each discrete improvement activity are aligned with the goals of the overall improvement program or change deployment framework and this is also aligned with the strategic direction of the business. Unless you are in the military it is rare to see this degree of alignment of mission, strategy and tactics. Reasons why strategies are not aligned with or do not link clearly to the improvement efforts include:

Wrong timing. Starting the lean implementation out of synch with the annual planning cycle can cause mismatches between the business strategy and the desire to implement certain lean systems or follow a particular road map. The latter should be an enabler to the former, provided the strategy itself does not go against lean principles.

Wrong level of sponsorship. When the level of executive sponsorship is not high enough there is the risk of dilution or distortion of the top level strategy. This can result in locally optimized implementation, or one that is weakly supported or even hampered by stakeholders above and to the sides of the sponsor of the lean implementation.

Wrong set of experts. Internal or external consultants who are strong in the tools but lack strong awareness of how policy deployment and effective leadership guides a lean implementation can result in weak or non-existent alignment.

Not ready to manage by facts. When opinions, feelings, egos, pet projects, pride and dogma are valued above the voice of the customer, well-mined data and observable facts, policy deployment will not be possible. Many lean implementations muddle along in environments like this. People become stuck on the left side of the change management U-curve as they feel exposed when systems are made simpler and more visual.

Command and control culture. Top-down goal setting and strategic planning are not conducive to policy deployment which requires two-way communication to break down challenging goals into reasonable ones based on resources available and front-line facts.

Those are some of the most common reasons why new lean implementations don’t wait for policy deployment to happen. The risks of implementing lean without policy deployment are big and have long-term repercussions.

First, there it the weather vane problem. Lean philosophy calls for a long-term vision and strategy based on a constancy of purpose. Policy deployment begins with a long-range plan typically 3 – 5 years out. Without this, the typical annual planning process may rely on a vision that is changing as often as senior executives do… roughly every 3 years in many corporations, depending on how the last one worked out. Lean may no longer be the direction of the new CEO. Differently branded and boxed improvement programs are stacked one after another in companies like this, like so many returned Christmas gifts.

Second, this creates a lack of focus. When people are unsure of whether this is the program of the month, whether they will in fact be measured for implementing lean or simply for meeting their cost and delivery targets as usual regardless of means, and when personal objectives are more important than team objectives, it is very difficult to make hard changes and significantly change the way we operate, as lean management requires. Policy deployment paired with lean implementation works through potential conflicts upfront by taking a thorough and deliberate planning and alignment process. Some call it “slow”. However the speed of this process should be judged by whether and how long it takes to reach the objective.

Third, without a blanket of policy deployment around the lean implementation there is a significant reduction in both the speed and quality of organizational learning that happens. This is because policy deployment is essentially the PDCA cycle at the highest levels of management. Almost nobody truly practices this in my experience. Least so the people who say, “We know PDCA.” It is a shame. It is the simplest of things to turn the PDCA wheel, but like an old bicycle ridden too many times through the brush we all seem to have tangled up all sorts of things in its spokes by the time we are adults and able to put the PDCA wheel to its best use.

One of the early missions of any lean implementation should be to enable a company culture that follows PDCA at the highest level, builds on past successes and failures and regenerates long-term strategies and annual plans by listening to a combination of internal and external customer voice. It’s a bit “chicken or egg”; one rolls about aimlessly if raw, the other pecks away eagerly at whatever looks edible.

1 Comment

  1. Danie Vermeulen

    September 14, 2009 - 12:51 am

    Spot on! Lean implementations’ very deep pitfall of the disconnect with Policy Deployment cannot be stressed enough. Lean implementation will certainly be still-born or very short-lived without this “Continuous Alignment”.
    The corporate / top-level PDCA concept is also very valid – funny how such a clear concept can confuse so many …