Fuel for the journey

Lean initiatives often start well, and then falter as enthusiasm and dedication wane. Debbie Giggle discovers what it takes to sustain lean for the long haul

The implementation of lean is often referred to as a journey and, like many journeys, it can be long, arduous and occasionally boring. Anyone who has been trapped in a car with the family in bank holiday traffic knows that a journey can sap the enthusiasm, however exciting the destination.

Some lean initiatives, however, are still delivering results after years and years. So is it just human nature to lose enthusiasm? Or is the lean programme itself to blame if all around us are losing interest?
Consultant Andy Spooner of Suiko, said: “The Hondas and Toyotas of this world have implemented CI (continuous improvement) for decades. Enthusiasm shouldn’t wane if there is a proper strategic alignment between the vision and goals of the company, and the day to day work of the employees. Continuous improvement should be a culture, not an add-on.”

Alan Barlow, CEO of Hamworthy Combustion, said, however: “I don’t like to refer to our improvement activities as continuous. That infers you don’t sort things properly the first time.

“A series of tactical initiatives are identified by the executive team each year from our business plan, and the improvement projects are tackled by multi-disciplinary, cross-functional teams in twelve week chunks – manageable bite size pieces – that people can focus on easily. We have three twelve week improvement projects a year – with a gap in between to let people recharge their batteries. The final quarter we leave free to work towards end of year targets. Eight weeks doesn’t give you enough time. More than 12 is too long.”

Rachel Eade of Accelerate (the automotive supply chain initiative for the West Midlands), said: “Our initiatives are typically 24 months long. Any longer than that and the project becomes too long-term and unwieldy.”

But what if your continuous improvement activities are ongoing?

Nigel Quick, director of organisational effectiveness at Uniq Prepared Foods, commented: “In human nature, as in biology, there is a natural growth curve to the change process – the sigmoid curve – which applies to lean. At the outset, the change process grows and flourishes. Then it plateaus out. Finally, left unattended, it dies.

“The change leader has to accept this and understand that different approaches are required at different times to maintain impetus and enthusiasm. Something that works today won’t necessarily work next year. You don’t get anywhere in this game being a one trick pony.”

But, do we really need everyone to be motivated and enthusiastic? If our processes are, in themselves, efficient and we’ve trained people in lean techniques, won’t that be enough?

Spooner said: “Everybody talks about lean tools, but that’s just one small part. Successful implementation of lean is 80 per cent behaviour and 20 per cent tools. You need the right mindset and a catalyst for change.”

And will we actually know if employee enthusiasm is waning? Won’t people just make out they’re motivated to avoid losing out on promotion and pay rises?

“In our experience, people tell it like it is,” said Spooner. “We use audits and perception surveys to actively gather this feedback, but you can always tell if enthusiasm flags by the impact it has on your KPIs.”

So what is the secret to sustaining motivation?

Eade said: “Projects involving complete supply chains have shared objectives and a degree of peer support which can enhance motivation. But you also need clear planning and milestones. It helps if there is one key person who can pull all the strands together and keep things on track. Flexibility is also important.”

Barlow commented: “It’s important to have clarity and support from the top.

“We give each project a start and finish date. An estimated cost is put against it and the return is estimated for the current and future financial years. We’re explicit in ‘parking’ things that we’re not planning to tackle at this stage, so that energy isn’t diluted.

“A pilot team scopes out the project following an improvement workshop. They report to the exec team and have our support throughout. Exec team support needs to be visible. I attend all of the workshops in person. I don’t actively take part. The team owns the project. But it keeps me in touch and demonstrates its importance to the company. Because the objectives are laid out clearly from the outset it is easy for us to quantify and celebrate the outcomes of each project.”

Barlow believes you shouldn’t make assumptions about who should lead the projects based on the level of a person’s experience in lean techniques. Natural leaders sometimes arise from pilot teams. One of the company’s PAs is currently leading an improvement project as she had exactly the right skill set and personality to make things happen.And what tips did our experts have for longer-term activities?

Quick commented: “Longer-term projects often fall over because the people driving the programme are using the wrong approach at the wrong time.”

Quick’s theory is that there are seven stages that change processes move through: coercion/crisis; persuasive communication; participation/ownership; structural rearrangement; role modeling; expectancy; reinforcement with rewards.

“When you begin a process of change it is often beneficial to adopt a ‘burning platform’ approach, making people aware of the risks of failing to adapt. This can create willingness for change but some leaders use this approach for too long and get diminishing returns. The energy dissipates and you risk losing the trust of your workforce. People soon know if you’re exaggerating a problem.

“Very quickly you want to integrate the next two phases: persuasive communication and involving people in the solutions. In effect you’re moving towards a strategy based on aspiration. The leader needs to achieve a difficult balance. You need to inspire confidence, but people also have to be able to challenge what you’re saying. Look for overlaps (where organisational needs coincide with things that people really care about). That’s where you’ll find commitment and ownership. Senior people, though, must have a passion for the vision. You can’t sell what you don’t have.

“During these phases you’ll need to devote time and resources to help people to learn the skills they need to bring about change. I don’t necessarily mean lean techniques. I’m a believer in not tooling people up too soon. But employees may need to develop the skills for talking and learning together. This collective IQ takes time.”

As programmes develop, however, Quick believes that lean leaders often fail to react to the fact that their company is changing. As a result, they leave old structures in place for too long instead of bringing in new arrangements which support the emerging behaviours. A simple example is implementing lean (doing more with less) but still offering overtime (rewarding people for failing to finish things on time).

Equally destructive are structural rearrangements made too soon to be useful. Have the recent years of acquisitions and consolidations encouraged this? Or is it the ‘new broom sweeps clean’ syndrome, where incoming senior people want to make their mark? Whatever the reason, Quick believes structural rearrangement grows organically from the process of change.

He also advises that, once a business has begun to change, the senior team should ‘label’ desired behaviour. He refers to ‘thought leaders’ within an organisation who have the credibility to carry forward other members of the team. Seeing that the role models are being rewarded for acting in a certain way will encourage other people to copy these ways of working. Over time the new behaviours, he believes, replace the old ones and become completely natural.

The final phases in Quick’s list are: expectancy and reinforcement with rewards.

“I believe you should ‘business up’ your people. Never dumb things down. As your lean programme continues, create high expectations for yourself and the people round you. It’s a powerful dynamic.”

The nuances of employee reward schemes would take an article in their own right to discuss, but Quick believes these should reinforce desired behaviours. They should also be appropriate to the results, and work best if they involve public recognition. Although he qualifies this by saying that recognition must be sincere and must not be self-gratifying for the management team if it is not to have an adverse effect.

“We’re not helped as an industry by being bottom-line focused,” he commented. “Cost-savings are one thing, but we also need to recognise things like experimentation, mentoring/coaching and the inherent knowledge of individuals. That’s what makes reward systems such a difficult area to get right.”

Finally, Spooner commented: “In some ways the greatest threat to losing the enthusiasm for lean can be over-enthusiasm for lean. As more people become aware of the techniques, and as personnel move between companies, there is the increasing risk of new stakeholders trying to do things differently and bringing about a misalignment in goals.” Moving the goal posts will quickly dissipate the team’s energy.

To sustain the lean drive, it appears the strategic vision of the lean leader (to understand where a company stands on the natural curve of change) and perhaps his or her steely nerve, are key to running lean without running out of steam.