How to lose friends and alienate staff – a lean sponsor’s guide

What happens when management is not properly equipped to undertake a Lean Transformation? In the first of his series on project missteps, pitfalls and faux pas, columnist Debashis Sarkar, author and Asia's service Lean pioneer, argues that things can go very wrong indeed.

Every text book you read on carrying out a Lean Six Sigma transformation talks about the importance of getting "top down" support. Management must be fully on board, understand the basic tools and techniques, and help to ensure buy-in at lower levels in the organization.

In reality, however, we often deal with less than ideal circumstances.

One particular piece of work springs to mind….

Our task was to catalyze a lean transformation event in the process-shop of a services organization. The objective was to look at opportunities for enhancing productivity and streamlining process efficiencies. The sponsor of the intervention was a leader who claimed to be passionate about improvements; during my pre-engagement discussion with her I realized that she understood some of the basic six sigma tools. She was quite proud of how she was a part of a few quality projects in her previous company that had delivered huge financial returns.

She assured me that she would provide all the necessary support to make sure that impediments were removed during the execution.

The words were what I wanted to hear, but I finished the meeting with a mixed view. Was she a real "performance- improvement-convert" or a "glib-talker"? We shall call her Ms. Viola John (not the real name).

The lean breakthrough event started on the scheduled date and Viola was there to set the context and communicated to all how important the project was and what it meant for her business. I was quite happy with the way the event got launched. The team began work as per the pre-defined schedule, going through the typical due-diligence of comprising value stream walk, detailed process dissection, takt time calculation, etc.

But then things started to go awry at the end of the second day when Viola made a sudden un-announced visit to the war-room.

At first, she seemed pleased with the maps, colored post-its, easel chart papers etc. adorning the walls all over. However, her eye went to the value stream map and the detailed process dissection comprising value-add / non-value-add analysis and that’s when it all started go wrong.

Viola didn’t understand why "electronic-inventory" showed in the value stream map and was keen to challenge us on it. She argued was that "service requests" were not inventory as they were not tangible. She went on to imply that this was not usual practice as her previous employer had not included "electronic inventory" in the value stream map.

Patiently, we explained the concept of inventory in lean thinking and seemed to win her round to our thinking. But not without a fight.

Next, she shifted her focus to data accuracy. She kept on questioning on source of data and who had provided them. We finally had to call the person in her team who had provided the data to reassure her that they were correct.

Her next focus was on the detailed process dissection comprising "VA-NVA" analysis and the identified eight wastes.

In total, the interrogation went on for four hours.

The team was able to successfully address all her concerns, but the problem is that they shouldn’t have had to.

This is a very good example of unconstructive micro management. Certainly, as the process improvement sponsor she had every right to challenge us on our work, but the problem is that she clearly didn’t have as much Six Sigma experience as she thought she did. She wasn’t challenging us on the work we were doing as much as questioning the very basic tenets of Lean and Six Sigma.

Her intervention distracted our project team from focussing on the task at hand, and left everyone feeling frustrated.

But then it got worse.

She was back at the end of the fourth day. This time she wanted to understand the "opportunities" that had been identified for improvement and was told that our intervention had freed-up around 21 people.

She wasn’t happy.

She called the process owner and gave him an earful, rebuking him for how in-efficient he had been in holding so many un-productive team members, and warning him that his year-end performance rating would be impacted.

This was the worst thing that could happen.

On hearing this I realized that I couldn't be a bystander any longer. I led her out of the room and talked her through the leadership behaviors required for building an improvement culture.

Viola’s behavior in this instance was exactly what you shouldn’t do to create an environment conducive to performance improvement. The rebuke to the process owner, and threats to undermine his year-end performance rating, would only lead to staff hiding problems and inefficiencies. Instead, she should encourage teams to report problems and process deficiencies.

So what do we learn from all this?

I don’t want to disparage Viola John’s character as I believe she thought she was acting in the best interest of the business. I think what this example highlights, though, is how important it is that business leaders are properly equipped with the right tools and necessary understanding of six sigma and lean to be an effective manager.

I think there are four main ways the pitfalls that I've described could be avoided:

1. Before embarking on lean transformation make sure that business leaders have undergone a session lean fundamentals– I should have ensured that Viola had undergone a proper training session. So many of the problems we encountered with her during the transformation would have been covered during the leadership alignment session and would have helped us avoid them in the first place.

2. A Lean Performance Improvement coach should spend time to coach leaders– even the best athletes in the world rely on coaches to improve their performance and understanding of the game; why should it be any different in business? I think that a coach can help business leaders understand the best way for them to contribute to process improvement.

3. Let leaders experience a lean performance improvement before they sponsor a project – I think we learn best by doing and I think that in an ideal world, all project sponsors would have participated in a lean improvement before taking charge of their own.

4. Encourage teams to report problems & reward them for taking the initiative to solve them – probably the single most important takeaway from all this! If we wish to foster a culture of continuous improvement then we must ensure that people are not put on the defensive. We want to foster an open environment that rewards staff for flagging up problems and then having the gumption to solve them.

As for the project, the Lean event got over as scheduled on the seventh day and all the counter-measures had been implemented as planned. The results spoke for themselves. And Viola? Her closing remarks were: "Good job but we have just scratched the surface".