Referring back to Simon Sinek and his Why, How and What codification, whether it be the Wright Brothers, Apple or an operator on a production line, the idea that they have must be based upon the solution of a problem with meaning, even if that meaning is relatively small in the scheme of things. It must be a problem for which the solution will result in increased value for the customer and, above all, the person with the idea must take ownership for the success of its execution. The Lean Leader must therefore ensure that the organisation focuses on rewarding and recognising those employees who have not only delivered an idea for improvement but have assumed the accountability for its successful implementation.
I have written a number of articles about the Leaderships responsibility to prioritise and the techniques to manage priorities and capacity, such as: "It's the Leadership, Stupid", "The Leadership Performance Trap" and "The Meaning of Lean (The Universe and Everything)" and, whilst it is incumbent upon the Leadership to become better at prioritisation and remaining focussed, it is critical that all employees become adept at understanding their priorities, true capacity and, most importantly, saying no.
However, there is a distinct difference between saying a stark no and in responding with what I refer to as the ‘Intelligent No’, with the fundamental difference being that in the case of the former, the conversation is closed and the requestor is dissatisfied with the response, whereas in the latter case, if done well, the requestor understands the reason for the no and is happy with the alternative offered.
To illustrate, when beginning a Lean Transformation in an organisation, the Business Excellence Team will inevitably start in a small scale and will (hopefully) experience success. This success will elicit requests from other parts of the organisation and the natural response is to attempt to meet all of the requests. However, if this approach is taken, it is inevitable that the team will fail to succeed in all areas, as the demand will simply outstrip their capacity to meet it.
As an alternative, if the team applies the mindset of the ‘Intelligent No’, they will have determined the scope and objectives of the Lean deployment and the Lean Leader will have agreed this with the Organisation’s leadership. These priority areas, let's call them the Model Lines, will be where the team is expected to focus its efforts and, whilst a certain amount of support for all areas of the business will be provided in terms of some basic lean foundational training and for daily management and problem solving, the bulk of the capacity will be dedicated to the Model Lines.
The Business Excellence team are therefore empowered to say no to other requests, quoting the committed scope of the Lean Transformation, and can have an open and honest dialogue with the requestors, hopefully providing them with some advice on how to better utilise the available support or managing their expectations. This apparent ‘under-support’ may appear counterintuitive but will be one of the key enablers of success, ensuring that the Business Excellence resources are focussed on their goals and have sufficient capacity to meet them.
That example was about a Business Excellence Team but it could equally have been about a New Product Development Team, Marketing Group, Project Team or Manufacturing Cell. Fundamentally, it is about understanding what the priorities are, resourcing those priorities appropriately and then staying focussed on delivering what has been committed to, without distraction. This is what Operationally Excellent, World Class Organisations do every day.
This does not mean that the teams aren't challenged to do more. They must, of course, get better and reduce the waste in their processes to improve their capacity and performance. They also should not be allowed to 'sand-bag' capacity and so the 'Intelligent No' doesn't mean that teams are without stretch objectives and high performance targets.
The 'Intelligent No' is a call to action for Leaders to clearly identify, through solid Hoshin Kanri and Daily Management, what their expectations are for their team members but, crucially, for employees to ensure that they take the accountability to deliver but to clearly and honestly utilise the 'Intelligent No' and assure high performance through refusal.
Whilst the above may seem a little ridiculous, it is analogous with many scenarios that I have experienced when a ‘Lean Expert’ has been requested to support a team or project. It is surprisingly common that the requester’s motivation seems to be that they have been told that they need a Lean Expert by someone (maybe their boss or a colleague who’s had great results utilising Lean Thinking) or that they’ve heard that they should do a Value Stream Map or run a Kaizen Event before executing the Project. It is not unusual in this type of scenario that the Lean Expert is requested for a fixed period of time and expected to be available to facilitate the application of whatever tool or technique it is that the team may believe necessary.
Inevitably in this situation, the team experience a similar disappointment to that of the swimming pool metaphor, with some form of Lean Tool or technique having been applied (a hole having been dug) but the business outcome that they desired (the swimming pool) being far from sight. This results in both the team members’ and the Lean Expert’s frustration and is deleterious to the relationship and to the credibility of the Lean Program in the organisation.
This often happens because both the requestor and the Lean Expert have forgotten to start with the why and instead both parties have focussed on each of their versions of the what, resulting in confusion over the how.
Whilst all of our team members are accountable to properly define the why of an activity, the Lean Expert must take a leading role in assuming the responsibility not to simply ‘dig holes’ where they are asked to but to instead ensure that a clear ‘Problem Statement’ has been defined in order that the objectives of the activity, project or event can be defined and the Charter agreed. This ‘A3 Thinking’ approach is core to Lean Thinking and will ensure that the appropriate intervention and Lean methodology is selected and that the team, including the Lean Expert, are fully aligned on why they are doing what they are doing, what they aim to achieve and how they will go about doing so.
Often, taking the time to challenge the request for one’s time can be difficult for the Lean Expert for a number of reasons, including where hierarchally senior people have made the request, due to the momentum of the associated project or program or simply because of the time required in the short-term to adequately think about the why (Plan) rather than simply reacting to the request (Do). However, ensuring rigour around the planning part of the process always results in a better outcome and so these barriers must be overcome.
Lean Thinking is more than just the application of the toolkit and being a Lean Expert is more than simply knowing the Lean Tools. It is therefore essential that the Lean Expert acts as a Lean Thinking Coach to the organisation, determining where their time can be best spent and refocussing the welcome requests for their help to maximise the impact. This shouldn’t and musn’t be done in a distanced or parochial manner but instead through partnering with the requestors and taking them through the development of the A3 Charters.
The well-worn saying goes; “When you're in a Hole, stop digging”; and for the Lean Expert, and their colleagues, it is critical that they avoid digging holes where they’re not needed.
For more information on ‘Start with Why’, please see the following links:
"I aim to promote the global sharing of best practices in the application of Lean Thinking."