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How to get started with lean and create buy in with your team – the answer is Simple


Implementing lean can seem like an overwhelming prospect for many leaders, especially those who are just beginning to learn about the philosophy and I often get asked where they should start and how they can get their team on board.

The answer is simple because simple is actually the answer.

Over the years I have been on my personal lean journey, I have gained a reasonable amount of experience in the implementation and maintenance of improvement programs. I certainly don’t have all the answers and I have a long way to go myself, however, over time I have refined my approach to lean training and coaching and it really does come down to simplification.

Lean thinking is simple in itself. In today’s consumer environment you can go and get a qualification in Lean, Lean Six Sigma and many other derivative improvement models. You can also find thousands of articles and as many consultants posting and advertising on the web, not to mention the hundreds of published books on the subject.

But it didn’t start out this way. In the beginning, Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System which today is often referred to by its nickname of ‘lean’, simply observed the processes in his factory and then took action to eliminate activities that did not add value.

Fundamentally, I believe it comes down to four simple basics:

1: Understand what value is to the customer

2: Relentlessly pursue the delivery of value to the customer through the elimination of non value adding activities (waste)

3: Have respect for people

4: Never stop trying to improve

Everything else is simply a tool to assist with pursuing the philosophy

With these basics alone, your journey can begin and you will have no trouble getting buy in with your team if you just keep it simple and follow these tips:

Simple vision

I find that with new lean leaders motivation is the least of the issues. Often, people have read an inspiring book, seen an inspiring story or visited a shining example of a lean business. They can’t wait to get started. This is an exciting time and it’s this drive and motivation that will later sustain a lean transformation long term.

The trouble comes when trying to communicate everything that has been learned and the passion that comes with it to others. My advice would be stick to a simple message to start with.

Before you can discuss your new direction with your team, you really need to understand what you are actually trying to achieve. What message are you pitching? What is your focus area? What is your long term vision?  It’s important to keep it simple and focus on something that the whole team can agree is a worthy goal. This simple message will be the guiding light for your journey. Going in with a announcement of ‘we’re going to be lean!” is far too wide reaching to start with. Something like “we want to be defect free” is a lot more tangible and immediately starts leading to ideas around how this could be achieved.

Simple message

It is extremely important to keep the message simple for your team. I have seen through past experiences that it is less than effective to simply announce to a team that the company is embarking on a lean program and that everyone needs to get on board. A lean transformation is the never-ending work of decades. Toyota has been on the journey for around 70 years and every team member there would say if asked about progress “We’ve still got a long way to go.”

Instead, it is much better to talk to the team about specific problems that everyone experiences and communicate that the team is going to work on improving these by trying to simplify the process. In my experience, most people are happy to get on board with solving problems that affect everyone. Successful lean transformations I have seen almost always begin in a place of pain. Some companies struggle with service, others with long lead-times and too much inventory. Again, the best way to begin addressing these issues is to focus on the area that is delivering the most pain to your team. Keep the message simple.

For example “Everyone has been noticing that it’s taking us too long to answer the phones. I know that everyone is frustrated by this. Let’s get together and work through the problem so we can give better service to our customer.”

With a simple statement like this, you can begin your lean journey without anyone mentioning the words ‘lean’ or ‘paradigm shift.’

Simple training

Work out the bare minimum of training that your team needs to get started. In some cases, it may benefit your team to use a consultant but make sure that you have clearly defined the scope and put clear boundaries around the problem. When it comes to preparing training I use a guiding rule of:

  • Only what is needed
  • In the amount needed
  • When it’s needed

By doing it this way, there is no additional “theory” that doesn’t actually relate to the problem that the team is trying to solve. By delivering only what is needed in terms of training I have found that team members are less overwhelmed by information and more able to apply new their new learning to the problem. Additional training can always be added in during the problem solving process if required or if the need for a new tool comes up.

Simple start

Once training has been done, the team can get started on trying to simplify their process. With a small amount of guidance, teams can easily work through simplifying their own processes. This is where true understanding and buy-in for improvement comes from. A leader does not need to convince a team that has found waste in a process to reduce that waste. It just comes naturally.

There is no rule around how this should work. Just find a way of representing the way things are now and focus on eliminating the things that are preventing the team from getting the process to where they need it to be.

Simple leadership

Simple leadership is as easy as simply leading. Be there, help understand and solve the problem, drive the team to keep working through the issues. When the team gets distracted or off course, bring them back to the simple message. Never pass this responsibility onto someone else to implement. A lean leader works from within the team, records the data, gets the coffee, provides motivation and always, always reinforces the message.

By keeping it simple, gaining buy-in from the team is almost a foregone conclusion.

Over time, applying a simple approach to problem after problem will result in processes that contain more and more value. Improvement culture and team confidence will begin to develop around these small successes. Over time, more and more lean theory can be introduced as new training is needed to help solve new and more advanced problems. Before you know it, you will be firmly established on your own lean path.

It’s really that simple.

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