Seven Policy Questions for Shaping a Lean Future

A Scientific American article from November 2020 looked ahead to how the election would shape the future of the U.S. and the world. The article asked seven questions related to how the election’s outcome would affect policies in science, health, and the environment.

In government, business, or the community, leaders must make consequential decisions during times of change. I’ve adapted the seven questions from the article to turn them into ones leaders must answer when starting and sustaining Lean transformations.

1. Which curve do we need to bend, and by how much?

We’ve all become perhaps more familiar than we would like with the bending of curves over the past year. However, this is a very useful way of thinking. What’s the one thing that we need to monitor, influence, and improve in order to succeed? Often this is not an outcome metric like profit but a process metric like lead-time or customer satisfaction.

2. How much to clean and why?

Continuous improvement almost always involves a fair amount of tidying up at the early stages, and often throughout the whole journey. Whether we call it 5S of materials, tools and equipment or a simplification of processes, procedures, and information flow, it needs doing. The question for leaders is “how much to clean and why?” Sometimes there’s a scientific answer, a rule of thumb like “sing happy birthday.” Other times, it’s clean enough when it makes abnormality or the sources of clutter visible.

3. Who will have reliable leadership support?

When embarking on a lean journey, the intention is to get to a better place and bring everyone along. However, not everyone makes it the whole way. Change doesn’t suit some people. New ways of working can be hard to learn. Sometimes it can feel to a leader like they are giving up more power than they are gaining under the new system. While that may not be the correct perspective, it’s not unusual. Senior leaders need to look across the base of their organization and ask, “Which teams will have reliable support from their leaders, and where do we need to make plans to develop or replace leaders?”

4. How to improve physical and psychological safety?

Physical and psychological safety is a front-and-center theme in society today. There’s nothing like illness and death to focus the mind on what’s important. The changes during a lean transformation are not as dangerous to our health. However, our brains treat loss of status and uncertainty about the future at work as a threat like any other. Physical, social, or psychological safety is safety. Not only must leaders not erode safety as a result of striving for excellence, improved safety must be an explicit outcome.

5. How will we change who we hire and promote?

In the course of a successful lean journey, a leader will find answers to items 3 and 4 above. Part of the answer normally comes from answering the fifth question in this list. Leaders must reexamine the type of people who will contribute and thrive under the new system they are building. Often, as leaders strive to change the culture, they recognize the need to hire for values and mindsets as much as experience and skills.

6. What to do with the surplus space?

A common outcome of a lean transformation is excess space. This is due to reduced clutter, less work-in-process, and faster-flowing processes requiring fewer and smaller assets. Unless a business is growing rapidly and in need of space, it’s normal to face the question of what to do with the surplus space. This may not seem like the most urgent question of this list. However, it’s often the most visible one. Leaders who give this question some thought may find that it inspires business development ideas, or other creative uses. For example, our friends at Kaas Tailored allow their employees to use their break room during weekends free of charge for wedding receptions and so forth.

7. What will we do with our shared resources?

On a more practical level, organizations on a lean journey often come face to face with the flow-blocker known as the shared resource. This may be a person with a limited but highly-sought after skill, a room with the hospital’s one most expensive medical device, a heat treating oven in one corner of the shop, or other asset that’s hard to duplicate. The answer is not to give up on continuous flow and say that it’s too hard for our type of business. There are various ways to pull through shared resources.

The Need for Leaders Who Ask the Right Questions

It’s not unusual for changes in leadership to be accompanied by changes in direction. Even when the leadership remains the same, societies and organizations both must adapt, make changes, and continuously improve. This is necessary in order to survive and thrive in a changing world. Even if we don’t always agree with the answers, we need leaders who ask the right questions.

6 Comments

  1. Brett Dolan

    March 22, 2021 - 4:55 pm
    Reply

    Great Post!

    I Found it especially interesting how you tied bending the curve into lean thinking. I agree it is definitely something that we have all grown sick of hearing throughout this past year, but bending the curve is very important in Lean and is a metric we can use for continuous improvement. Another thing that I thought was very interesting was talking about what to do with surplus space. This is definitely something that we have seen more of now with Covid and many people working from home. I do have one question however. When going through a transformational process as a company, it is made clear that leaders are looking to hire people who will fit their new vision but should these leaders also focus on converting the mindsets / training former workers as well? Or does this process usually lead up to employee turnover?

    Thanks once again for the great post!

    • Jon Miller

      March 22, 2021 - 5:33 pm
      Reply

      Thanks for your question Brett. Yes, it’s normal for leaders to focus on changing mindsets and converting people. It’s desirable to bring everyone along on the journey, but this isn’t always possible. Sometimes focusing on the so-called “anchor draggers” can be counterproductive as well. It can be better to recognize and reward the volunteers, which leads to converting the fence-sitters. In terms of new hires, it’s a question of recognizing that if we are “hiring for fit” the definition of “fit” maybe changing as the organization and its culture evolves.

  2. Phil Vigeant

    March 31, 2021 - 11:49 am
    Reply

    Awesome read! I agree on #4 about safety, in my opinion safety is #1 most important task about any job. If your workers don’t feel safe, they will not be working at their top performance levels. Also like how you mention psychological safety, as most people only assume physical safety however peoples psychological safety is just as important! Another point I found interesting was what to do with the surplus space. With covid a majority of people started working from home and companies realized that you can work remotely and still be as productive. Do you think once covid is over do you see people continuing to work remotely or do you believe it would go back to normal with a vast majority working at an office.

  3. Jon Miller

    March 31, 2021 - 1:17 pm
    Reply

    Hi Phil. Thanks for your comment. I think there will be much more working from home than in the past. The experiment of the past year has forced people and companies to figure out how to make it work. Even if only a third of those succeeded, the benefits are hard to ignore. There will be a shift back to in-person meetings and office work, but not all the way back.

  4. Joe Fortin

    March 31, 2021 - 3:02 pm
    Reply

    Hey Jon- this was a great post to read! It was great how much you touched on lean thinking because it really is something need to do. I agree on all the points you talked about, but especially enjoyed diving deeper into #5 when you mentioned how important values and mindsets are. While a lot of people can have high experience and skills, sometimes their values and mindsets might be more important. We often times forget this and I think it is something, especially us students, need to keep in mind. I also found the surplus space question interesting as I feel like there are probably a lot of companies who just waste their excess space. The example you used of having wedding receptions is smart and it is important to think outside of the box these days. We can execute all we have to the best of our ability and with Covid-19 still backing people up at the office, extra space is very helpful in some situations right now. Relating to Covid-19, do you think that employees who work from home are more successfully executed, or are slacking and not completing their tasks to the best ability possible? Thanks again. -Joe

    • Jon Miller

      March 31, 2021 - 5:44 pm
      Reply

      Hi Joe
      I think the question is not whether working at home causes people to slack more than if they are at work. Slackers gonna slack. But more to the point, a company culture that doesn’t motivate, reward and keep people accountable to each other is going to have slacking, whether in an expensive corporate office or in your PJs at home. I do think that it’s important to have a good work space and good work environment, whether at work or at home. Free from distractions, support accessible, ways to de-stress or decompress from time to time. For many people, home offers some of these things but not all. But then again, neither does every office.
      Thanks for reading!
      Jon

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