Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Preparing for the Natural Tendency to Backslide

Patience is waiting. Not passively waiting. That is laziness. But to keep going when the going is hard and slow - that is patience.Alexandre Dumas Père
As I’ve written many times before, I don’t believe there is ever a point where a company can say that its lean mindset is truly sustainable.  There is just too much of a natural pull back to the traditional way of doing things to ever feel that an organization has “made it.” And in many instances, this "natural pull" is strong enough to bring the improvement momentum to a grinding halt.

The Effect of a Crisis

So how do you know when the organization is abandoning lean principles and slipping back into its own ways?  There are actually many signs of lean decay, but one of the most common shows up when the organization faces a crisis.  When the company faces a crisis – falling prices, increased raw material costs, a loss of market share, or a host of other problems – do leaders appear to remain calm, keep the focus on the ideal condition, and continue to drive kaizen activity to address the gaps, or do they abandon lean and develop countermeasures that consist of cost-cutting and other short-term measures that pull the organization away from the activities that strengthen the operation?

When facing a crisis, it is perfectly normal to abandon new thinking and return to old habits, especially when there is a lack of experience in the new way or doubts about whether or not it will quickly address the organization’s problems.  Leaders tend to face immense pressure to assure the organization performs and unless there is a deep understanding of lean and the organization, it is not practical to expect that they will stick to something they do not know will get the organization back on track.

To prevent abandonment of the move toward lean, it is critical that leaders become involved in the deployment and learn as the organization begins its transformation.  It is too easy for those who sit on the sidelines and watch the organization change to pull the plug when a crisis hits.  They don’t understand why the improvements occur and that learning continues to occur even when an attempted improvement does not succeed.  They also do not understand that the most significant improvements require a transformation in thinking and leadership throughout the organization.

Unfortunately, successfully moving the organization toward a lean mindset often requires good timing as much as a clear plan and an experienced deployment team.  Transformation can take many years and Western business has never been known for its patience.  Throughout my career, I have worked with leaders who want to drive Toyota-like improvements without appreciating the decades that Toyota worked on developing their system.  Because of this, it is important to assure that learning takes place as the deployment proceeds.  This can only occur when leaders are involved from the beginning and PDCA-thinking is applied throughout the organization.

"The first step is transformation of the individual.  This transformation is discontinuous." - W. Edwards Deming

There is nothing more critical to success in a lean transformation than learning.  Keep in mind, however, that people can only learn when and what they’re able to at any given time.  By continuing to emphasize the need to understand cause and effect – or the reasons why results are what they are – you will greatly increase the chances that the organization will develop a learning environment.

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