4 lean changes to your daily management practice
Practicing lean changes radically how managers manage.
I am fortunate in seeing this transformation firsthand every day, and here are 3 clear changes with huge impacts on management outcomes.
As managers learn lean thinking, you can see their management practice change visibly. Old habits are discarded, new behaviors are adopted. Funnily, the same new behaviors that seem completely obvious and “common sense” to managers a few years down the line, are seen as “huge change”, “complete transformation”, “paradigm change,” “cultural change” or whatever at the start. This is definitely hyperbole due to being pushed out of their comfort bubble. Lean behavior change are, in fact, actually quite small and manageable, but they have lasting impacts on outcome.
Go and see for yourself, don’t decide on the dossier
The first radical change is to not allow yourself to decide on issues without at least having seen one concrete instance, at the real place with the real people. Most executive decisions appear as “cases”: someone prepares a brief of the situation, key stakeholders gather in a meeting and share their opinion on what is going on and push their favored solution – then the manager decides… and these decision always take unexpected turns at execution.
Every time a manager goes to see one concrete case of the issue being discussed, she comes back with a completely different understanding of the situation. In framing the brief, people tend to categorize in paretos of what are the most important items, and in doing so tend to mix instances that have very different origins. Solutions addressing problems poorly defined tend to solve nothing an create much unfortunate, unexpected fallout.
By simply looking “with your feet” at one specific instance and discussing with the people experiencing the problem firsthand – and then if it’s intriguing, and important, a second case and so on, one quickly realizes that all sorts of different solutions are treated as if they were the same and a blanket response is in all likelihood both overkill and besides the point, like a very powerful gun that misses a small target.
Clearly, executives need to formulate general strategies, and they do in lean thinking as well, but they do so by digesting many concrete facts they’ve seen for themselves and many various local attempts to solve the problem to get a better grasp of what is feasible or not – their strategies tend to be both far more to the point, and far more pragmatic.
Act as an advocate of the customer
In any burning issue, the customer is rarely sitting at the table in the meeting room, whilst all the other parties are there, fired up and ready to go. Arguments can get tense, every one defends their own personal or functional interest, and it’s very easy to get sucked into making decisions that are about keeping things balanced internally.
One clear change that arises out of practicing lean thinking, is that the manager no longer stands as the aloof judge that will decide once all the stakeholders have had their say, but as an active advocate of customers:
- How does this decision affect which customers?
- How will this impact our relationship with them?
- Are we pushing them to use an alternative – either competitor or another way to solve their problem – if we go for this or that option.
If the more powerful person in the room defends customer interests, gradually, the entire organization becomes more customer focused as key player are reminded that they are there for a purpose beyond pushing their immediate functional or political agendas.
Engage people in making their own changes
As managers practice lean they completely change their attitude to managing their teams. Rather than make decisions (command) and then check their execution (control), they visit teams to check the teams understanding of the overall situation (intercut) and encourage teams to make their own step-by-step changes (improve).
The lean technique is visual management – work processes should be visible in a way that every person working there should understand intuitively what is required and which make to put in an extra mental effort in terms of initiative and care. The visual management system itself give direction for progress.
Managers no longer approve request for change. They go to the workplace to hear what teams intend to change, discuss with the teams whether these changes indeed go in the direction of solving the overall challenges, and then do what they can to support the proposed change (a lot of it is about getting the bureaucracy – who’s entire purpose is to stop change – out of the way).
In most organizations, teams have been conditioned to follow the systems in place and will often come up with no change or extremely timid change. Supporting these kaizen steps are about teaching the team to become more autonomous, whilst still contributing to the solving the larger problems that all can solve. The discussion shifts radically from:
- such and such other department should change this for us to do our work and you, the leader, should take appropriate action/make decisions, to
- we understand that the overall challenge is this and we intend to make this specific change in the way we work
Progressively as each team adopts this attitude (more or less, some more than others, and some more cleverly than others) the entire organization starts to morph organically and adapt itself by aligning on the key challenges. More importantly, teams progressively take control over their destiny and start caring more, which also means doing a better, more thoughtful job of it on day to day tasks. Last week I was on a gemba where the manager has successfully done this for the last two years and, in last year’s corporate HR survey, the number of “totally engaged” employees has jumped from 23% to 33% (the unit was in a bad way before) an d”totally engaged plus engaged” from 59% to 69% – which is a spectacular change.
Seek a deeper understanding of the situation before investing
With any tricky situation, there are some immediate costs that can ber spent right away to mitigate the problem as it appears, and some larger investments that are needed to fix the problem so that it doesn’t come back to bite (or at least not too soon).
One clear change in managers practicing lean thinking is that they get faster at spending small to react quickly with a stop-gap fix and slower at investing on full-scale “solutions”. Reacting quickly is the first step to really understand what is going on.
Our minds are designed to see signs and sort them into patterns, often without much rhyme or reason as long as the pattern feels powerful: few can resist reading a horoscope although most know astrology is complete bumpf. We are natural suckers for bullshit arguments long as they sound good.
Some signs, definitely, are symptoms – but not all. Some symptoms are reflection of deeper syndromes, the mechanisms at work that explain the situation – but again not many. There usually is a signal somewhere, but it tends to get drowned in all the noise.
Lean thinkers progressively learn to seek to understand the mechanisms, the signal behind the noise, before they choose to commit or invest. As conversations with other managers shift towards such deeper understanding, investment decisions change in nature, and investments themselves become both more frugal and more effective. Better targeting large-scale problem solving has a dramatic impact on the business as a whole. Discussing at mechanism level is also a very powerful way of making functional managers or team leaders look up from their immediate issues of who-did-what and who-wants-what and come together on a common understanding of the real problems we’re all trying to solve, which drastically improve teamwork in the management teams, and echoes all the way through the organization.
Lean is not a philosophy – it’s a practice. By practicing lean thinking, managers learn to change their day to day approach of the dossiers they need to handle and shift from an administrative “listen to all points of view and take the best decision” way to go and see and engage all people in small step changes until we all agree on the deeper mechanisms at work and how to respond. It is, in fact, an empirical approach to management which, not surprisingly, produces far better outcomes overall as all people are included in the decision and action process, as opposed to be excluded of the decision making, and exploited by compliance and mindless execution.