Earlier this week I flew to the other coast to be remotely sequestered with five or six of the most influential people in the lean world. For a variety of reasons I won’t get into exactly who and what the purpose was, but suffice it to say I was humbled to be a part of it. Being able to learn from people of this caliber has always been the primary reward for the time I put into building the Superfactory resource base.
The discussions were wide-ranging, from emerging companies that really apply lean to the political and social issues to the underpinnings of lean itself. For the most part I sat back and listened to people whose networks and depth of experience far exceeded mine, but occasionally I was able to add something from an online/internet perspective.
One of the most intriguing topics had to do with the current lean learning environment, and what it takes to create a sustaining organizational culture. Some companies, such as Toyota and Danaher, have such robust cultures that the lean intensity is relatively immune to changes in leadership. Others, such as Parker-Hannifin and Wiremold, have outstanding lean efforts that ebb and flow depending on the commitment and knowledge of the current management team.
The ability to create true process excellence in addition to people excellence is one key differentiator. With some work and a modest commitment to lean, almost any company can create excellent people who have a high level of lean knowledge. Tools can be taught and real-world experience given. But process excellence requires an additional level of commitment, throughout the organization and driven from the top.
An example of this is the ability to successfully manage and integrate acquisitions… an activity that almost by definition is rarely successful. Danaher does it every day, almost literally. There is a very defined process that determines how acquisitions are targeted, evaluated, and negotiated. Once an agreement is reached there are very defined processes for how the Danaher Business System is implemented into the new business. The process is regimented, tried and true, but always evolving in response to new knowledge and experience.
This brings us back to how lean is taught and integrated into an organization. Unfortunately most companies, and even some highly-regarded academics and consultants, see lean as just a set of tools. A “kaizen-in-the-box” event here, a 5S activity there, and voila! Lean is born. And it dies soon after the consultant or champion moves on. Even if they understand that lean is far deeper, they are constrained by the requirement to make a buck. It is relatively easy to sell a five-day kaizen event, but far more difficult to tell a client that the transformation will take years and they will likely negative financial results during the first several months.
Experienced lean practitioners understand that the rigorous process excellence side of lean is more critical than the tools. This is why hoshin kanri, or policy deployment, is critical for long-term success. It creates the framework for defined process thinking by linking long-term strategies with shorter range tactics, programs, metrics, and accountability. This is driven consistently throughout the organization, and when executed correctly and thoroughly provides the basis for process thinking in all areas. The better it is done, the more immune an organization will be to business and leadership changes.