Gaining upper management support for the lean process

Tags: lean manufacturing

Lean Learning Center co-founder Jamie Flinchbaugh participated in a Webcast recently which covered a number of topics regarding lean. Below is a question-and-answer synopsis representing Flinchbaugh’s views regarding how to gain upper management support in the lean transformation process.

Q: How can I succeed in a lean implementation without upper management support?

A: First, recognize that few companies start a lean program with upper management support. Sometimes, but very rarely, lean originates and is lead by senior management. Slightly more often, someone in senior management gets the journey started, but does not maintain it. However, most common is the scenario where someone else in the organization needs to get them on board.

If you want upper management support, then part of your job is to do whatever it takes to gain that support. One way you can do that is by applying lean to your own job and your own sphere of influence – whether that is just you, a team, a department or a process. You have to deliver results anyway, so why not use lean to do it? This will make things around you more effective, which then may influence upper management to support lean because of the results you achieve. Additionally, you will learn as part of the process, which is all the reason any of us should need.

Q: How do you assure lean thinking is being applied by leadership?

A: I am defining leadership as the executive ranks. You can not "assure" lean thinking as each person controls his own thoughts and actions. However, you can encourage, promote, coach and drive.

Here are a few thoughts. First, manage expectations. This, in part, may involve a lowering of the bar. But, too often, we place an expectation on leadership that they live up to lean principles every minute of every day with no lapses. Even mighty Toyota would not sign up for that. Executives are human beings and mistakes will happen – and they will happen often. Expect that they will learn, try, engage and learn some more. But, although you should pursue perfection, do not make the mistake of expecting it.

Second, if leadership is to apply lean thinking, then they must learn true lean principles and not just lean tools. No executive will ever change bottom-line performance by putting a 5-S shadowbox around their stapler. But, standardizing their information flow, believing and practicing waste elimination and directly observing work are things that they can practice in their own role.

Next, they need to reinforce the right behaviors by making it visible. Too often, I see leaders change their ways, but no one really gets to see the change because the leader does not talk about it. Change needs to be communicated to the rest of the corporation. Make sure people not only see it, but also understand it. It is not enough to just change – if people don’t understand it, they will not know how to emulate it.

Finally, start to measure it. I don’t mean with a metric, but either through shadowing, coaches or even more formal reviews. Begin to articulate the behavior changes and evaluate their success. In the end, the war for people’s minds and hearts will probably have a few casualties along the way as there will be some people who cannot act on what is being asked of them. But, you have to at least give them a chance. Some might surprise you.

Q: If the dollars saved do not inspire leadership to take lean steps to really start engaging people, what else would you suggest?

A: This is a question that would require a lot more context and specifics to answer, but I can try to answer how I would look at it. First, if there are true dollar savings and people are staying on task with their jobs, a direct inquiry as to why cost efficiencies are not influencing leadership is important. There could be some valid reasons for not acting on these gains. For example, the dollars saved might be soft savings. Now, that doesn’t mean the savings aren’t real, but the organizational situation, or possible culture, might only value hard savings (for example, the budget is now lower).

The second question or issue is around the topic of the actual engagement of leadership. Many managers believe they are very supportive. They view themselves as 100 percent behind the lean efforts. The problem is that behind is still behind, but engaged typically means out in front. They might be very interested in what lean can do for them, but not really know what they should do about it.

One last thought is that dollars saved does not excite everyone, even if they value it and even if they are measured by it. You must still consider the emotional element. If people are leaving the office at 7 p.m. feeling like they got nothing done, could lean help them leave at 5 p.m. feeling like they made a difference? Sometimes a vision like this that affects morale is much more compelling and engaging than just saying we saved some money.

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