The most thoughtful questions that I have received from senior leaders regarding the health of their organization’s lean transformation have little to do with the methods, tools and lean practices themselves. Nor are these questions about the results and rewards that they can expect from lean. If not about the process of lean or about the results or lean, then what are these questions about? It has occurred to me that the most thoughtful and interesting questions are about electrical systems, the amps, watts, volts and ohms of their organization’s continuous improvement efforts.
The three basic units in electricity are voltage (V), current (I) and resistance (r). Voltage, or pressure, is measured in volts, current is measured in amps, and resistance is measured in ohms. Current is equal to the voltage divided by the resistance. Increasing the voltage increases the flow. In an electrical system power (P) is equal to the voltage multiplied by the current. It is measured in watts. The senior leaders concerned with the pace and sustainability of improvement within their organization does not use these terms. Maybe they should.
The capability of an organizations and its people to innovate, adapt and improve is analogous to an electrical system. The voltage is pressure from the customer needs, dreams, ideals or targets that provide impetus to improve. Perhaps motivation is a better term. The current is equivalent to the rate and flow of ideas, how quickly people identify problems or new ideas and how quickly the organization acts on them. The resistance is whatever inaction, disengagement or active refusal of people to be part of the solution. The improvement system power of an organization is V times I.
One of the best lean leader questions is some variant of, “How can we increase engagement?” with the motivation both of enriching the job and of getting the most out of our people. Studies have long shown that engaged people are happier and more contributive than those who are not engaged. This is a matter of raising the voltage, adding motivation, context, purpose, meaning or whatever enables people to take on their day with more energy.
“How can we overcome resistance?” is a common question. A typical answer is to make the voltage more attractive, motivating, customer-centric. Even with a healthy dose of what’s-in-it-for-me this is rarely enough. Reducing resistance is is best done by reducing burden, increasing the capacity of the pipe (to mix metaphors) and to just make it easier to do one’s job well.
How can we go faster? This is a question of making sure the current can flow, that there are no shorts, dead batteries, or frayed wires. It is a matter of designing the organization’s improvement system with a variety of improvement methods that take advantage of opportunities large and small. These include things like daily management through QC circles, kata coaching and practical problem solving, kaizen events for focused rapid improvement workshops, traditional projects that require longer-term coordination across multiple teams, strategic initiatives selected through hoshin planning to monitor and adjust the overall system. Also, that there are no superfluous lights, bells and whistles sucking watts out of the lean system.
What these leaders are asking is, “How do I increase the power of my lean system?” But they have no idea what their current wattage is, much less amp, volts and ohms. Ironically, lean management systems have no such metrics of effectiveness. Perhaps we can borrow from electrical engineering and begin to think, measure and improve a lean system’s resistance, voltage, current and power.