Lean Leadership – How culture grows through empowering people to change their own processes

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I love our team member based improvement system. The work of a few years now, it’s really starting to come into its own.

Once a month our wider team of around seventy people sends representatives from each of twelve teams to share their improvement activities for the month.

Each team very briefly talks about their improvement, which is visually displayed on a basic A4 Before and After Improvement Report, describing what the problem was, what they did and the results they have seen. These improvements are usually recorded in terms of Quality, Cost, Delivery, Safety and Morale.

It’s an inspiring session for me. As I watch our team members explain how they or their team personally changed their own work processes for the better, I am reminded both of how far the culture has come in nearly three years and of the truth that lean culture grows out of the empowerment and commitment of people.

Earlier this year I published a post on how to build a waste elimination culture in a series of simple steps. It’s a guide for people just starting out that need some practical advice on how to start building a lean culture in any company. In this post, I want to expand on how culture changes over time as these steps are implemented, or at least my observations on how culture changes.

Stage One: Communicate the Target Vision

The most important part of developing culture is clearly communicating the end goal or target vision for culture. In our case, the target vision is for all team members to have the skills and be empowered to change their own work processes. It is essential that everyone in the leadership team is clear on and understands this vision. If this is not clearly understood, resistance will surface later around the relative importance of improvement versus production for example.

At this stage in the process there may be a degree of skepticism around the process. If the company is early in the transition process it’s likely you are the only one who has any experience in building a culture and doing improvement as a way of life. On the upside, at this stage its relatively easy to get people to ‘have a go.’

Stage Two: Leaders Learn through Doing

Before team members start to learn, leaders need to learn, understand and practice improvement themselves. This serves two key purposes. One, leaders are seen to be setting an example and two, leaders can later teach skills to others.

The best way for leaders to learn is through doing. By identifying problems, solving them and documenting and communicating improvements, leaders develop their own skills and culture along the way.

Culturally, there will be leaders who immediately get the point, take to the improvement process and become willing champions. There will also be those that are on board but struggle with the regular discipline required for structured improvement. A small proportion will forget, resist, declare the documentation side of the program a waste of time and generally lag behind. In the early days this is not too much of an issue. Most of them will come on board as culture starts to swing towards the target. Just keep pushing forwards.

Stage Three: Review the process – Plan Do Check Act (PDCA)

At this point it’s important to work through the proposed program with the leadership team. Find out which parts of the process work well and which bits could use work. Make sure you know what the boundaries are. For example, the process must be documented as simply as possible but the style or format of documentation is up for debate. Giving away the program altogether is never up for debate. Investigate the issues with the process by asking Why to make sure you and the team deeply understand and have corrected any legitimate issues before rolling this out to the wider team.

When we did this we started with a weekly session, that become fortnightly and ultimately monthly. By stretching it out we found that everyone was able to achieve one improvement per team per month. Later on, it wouldn’t surprise me if sessions become more frequent as we get more and more improvements per team per month. Leaders also felt that it was important to start getting team members involved. This was great as they naturally progressed through their own learning to the next cultural development stage.

Stage Four: Leaders Teach and Team Members Do

At this point it’s showtime. Leaders start to invite team members to work with them on waste elimination projects and bring them along to present their improvements. This is where the magic starts to happen. By participating in improvement activities line team members start to feel empowered and their confidence grows as they stand up in front of their peers and receive positive recognition of their efforts. Ideas start to flow. Team members then begin to work independently on improvement or in team member led teams.

It’s important at this stage to make sure that enough time is allocated for people to work on improvements. There’s no one best way to do this, the process should suit the leader of each area with a goal of making sure every team member gets a chance and is actively involved in improvement. Even if people are reluctant to get involved at first, what’s important is that they see a culture where they could participate if they wanted to.

I recently saw an amazing example of this process. We have a team member who had joined the leadership team recently and had only just started to learn the process himself. He took to it straight away and it was wonderful to watch his personal confidence and sense of empowerment grow. He almost immediately started teaching others in his team, encouraged them to come and present their improvements and in one amazing example, presented an improvement for a team member who was too shy to speak. When I spoke to the shy team member later she said that she wouldn’t be too shy next time now she had seen what to do. Her teammate had made it possible for her to get involved and be recognised despite her shyness. That is one of the best cases of leading by example that I’ve seen in my twenty odd years as a lean coach.

Stage Five: Team Members Teach

As a company, we are now entering the stage of culture growth where team members are teaching other team members. New team members are beginning to be taught our improvement methods as part of their on the job training. Many team members are able to teach others how to work on, document and celebrate improvement.

Stage Six: This is just the way we do things around here

The ultimate goal is that every person in the organisation is empowered and has the skills to change their own process. We’ve still got a way to go to achieve this but we can see it on the horizon.

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Culture growth has its ups and downs. Even as amazing culture is developing in the majority of team members, there are always others who ultimately believe that documenting and celebrating improvement is a waste of time. As culture develops, these kinds of attitudes thankfully become less popular and will often disappear through the peer pressure that comes from the new culture. As this happens, discontented team members become more and more distressed as change continues around them. They may feel left out or that the company is making a terrible mistake.

As frustrating as it can be it’s best to address issues like this before they start to fester. Team members need to know that you appreciate their frustration and will try to address their concerns but that the improvement program itself is not going anywhere. On top of this, you expect them to meet their own obligations with respect to the program. Generally this works. Where it doesn’t, other avenues to resolve the problem must be taken. There can be a risk of damage to an emerging culture if it is being actively undermined by a few people. If the undermining is happening from members of the leadership team it must be immediately dealt with.

Leadership resistance is easy to spot. Just look for the team with the least improvement happening, where team members are not contributing to the program. It’s unlikely that all the team members in a team do not want to do improvement. In my experience, most employees jump at the chance to effect change in their own area. The resistance most usually comes from the front line and middle levels of leadership.

Resistance aside, the other key ingredient that must be present for culture change to happen is the full and active support of the owners and/or senior executives for the principles of the improvement program. In our company we are privileged to be owned by self starters who truly believe that ongoing and constant improvement is the only way for the future survival of the business. We have a clear mandate to improve and we’ve grabbed it with both hands.

Our culture is constantly improving every day. There are setbacks, we have had resistance. In the end, the support of our leaders and the commitment of the majority of our team members drives us constantly forwards. Each new person who participates, learns new skills and starts working with us to improve our processes takes us another step closer.

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I’d love to hear how lean culture has developed in your company.  Post a comment to share your journey.

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