Dear Lean practitioner, remember you don't know all

Lean agents making the transition to service industries should speak softly and carry a list of questions. In the second article of his series on project missteps, pitfalls and faux pas, columnist Debashis Sarkar, author and Asia's service Lean pioneer, says that lean leaders must practice humility and seek to understand rather than lecture.

Many of us who work in Lean "cut our teeth" in the quality improvement departments of manufacturing companies. Now we’re making the transition to services firms and the move is fraught with perils for the unwary practitioner.

The case of one man - let’s call him Ronny Konstantin – springs to mind to illustrate this.

Ronny had spent 12 years in the quality function of a manufacturing company. Now, he was all set to make the move to what he believed would be a lucrative career in financial services.

He had been very successful at deploying "continual improvements" in his previous company and figured that the service company would be a cake-walk.

How wrong he was.

Although there are many commonalities between the two sectors; there are very important differences.

Let’s return to our example. Ronny’s mandate was to get a business unit to adopt quality practices - Lean, Six Sigma, 8D - for business improvement.

He began by convening a meeting with fourteen of the Product and Operations Leaders and began by lecturing the assembled executives on the power of quality philosophy and how it had helped it improve the yields of the copper factory where he had worked previously. He went ahead rattling the power of "statistical-quality-control" and how he was among the few to be selected as a trainer for the same. He further used terms such as grinding, ore, concentrating, smelting, anode-casting etc – terminology familiar to workers in the copper industry but unintelligible to bunch of white-collared bankers.

Ronny had gotten off to a poor start, by being more concerned about sharing his knowledge of quality and how it had contributed to his old job. No-where did he make an effort to understand what the business unit wanted and what the business’ "pain points" were.

Ronny should have sought to understand.

As performance improvement professionals we need to understand that every encounter with our internal customers - especially during early engagement phases - is a moment-of-truth and we cannot waste them. In Ronny’s case, he should have used his first meeting to truly assess the needs of the business rather than citing examples from an irrelevant industry.

But back to our story.

Ronny Konstantin requested another meeting with the team where he promised to share a set of consumer issues which would "open their eyes". After much persuading only eight Product & Operations heads (out of the earlier fourteen) agreed to spend another 30 minutes with him.

The meeting started with Ronny making a presentation on his "findings". Ronny had culled a set of customer-complaints from social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook etc. After listing the consumer issues he went on to discuss the things which he believed the organization had done incorrectly and which had resulted in the consumer dissonance. The group of executives were rather engaged by the presentation.

But, then came the kicker.

In Ronny’s last few slides, he started preaching about how terrible it was that a company of this size tolerated such complaints and the leaders didn’t "do anything about it". He concluded by saying that such leaders would have been shown the door in his previous company. One could see red-faces leaving the room.

Ronny believed that by creating a bit of sensationalism he would get engagement. How wrong he was.

Ronny should have practiced humility.

While his effort to get the Voice of Customer from social-networking sites was laudable, by levelling accusations at the executives, Ronny alienated his audience, which meant that nobody would give him the help he needed in establishing the organizational processes that had caused the problems in the first place.

So what happened later? Did the business unit approach Ronny for solving their problem? Of course not.

One leader said that individuals like Ronnie could be detrimental to the organizational DNA of "collaboration". Another said that it was a mistake to recruit a person from copper industry into a service company.

After such a rocky start, Ronny found it almost impossible to get time for subsequent engagements.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when we do not understand the nuances of engaging a business to adopt any improvement practice for improvement. A person could be a tool maestro but if he/she does not know the softer side of change management he can never graduate to become an Improvement Change Leader. It’s imperative to understand what the business wants instead of dumping all that we know, no matter how successful you’ve been in the past. One needs to understand industry nuances before passing judgement.

The most important thing to remember is that improvement professionals exist for the success of the business and not vice-versa.