By Gary Santorella
The traditional Lean assessment for waste often focuses on wait times, unnecessary touches, or ineffective procedural handoffs. But more often than not, waste has a face. While the common refrain for Lean practitioners is that "90% of the time, people are not the issue - the process is", we can't give that same pass to those in leadership positions. The hard truth is, the best Lean efforts can go for naught if a company's leadership is disengaged or otherwise ineffective. This is why every Lean assessment should include an examination of leadership functionality.
Recently, Larry and I worked with a service division for a construction company that, at first blush, should have been the very picture of success. The company, overall, had a great reputation in the industry for providing quality work with the highest level of integrity. Their people were experienced, well trained, and empowered to do their jobs. Yet, despite these significant pluses, measures for productivity and profitability painted a very different picture. In short, the division was the company's poster child for underachievement.
The causes for this state of underachievement, as revealed by a detailed VSM, were varied. An equipment inspection process that duplicated information that existed elsewhere in the company, a circular routing of procedures that resulted in multiple, non-productive touches, and inaccurate information in the tasking checklist that required techs to return to the warehouse to retrieve the correct parts for the job were certainly all significant variables in the waste equation. But to understand the true root cause of waste in any system, it is imperative to determine what psychologists describe as "maintaining conditions" - i.e., the elements that are in place that actually inadvertently reinforce (maintain) wasteful practices. In this case, the true "driver" was a lack of effective leadership and the psychological phenomenon known as "learned helplessness".
Replicable empirical studies, for both animals and people, have clearly shown that if an organism doesn't have a sense that it can exert positive control over its negative environmental circumstances, that - over time - it simply stops trying to improve its situation. As Seligman demonstrated, if you place a dog in a tank of water until it drowns, revive it, do it all over again, then try to train it to avoid an aversive stimuli (jumping over a low wall when an alarm sounds to escape an electrified grid), it will fair far worse than dogs that did not experience the drowning phase. Compared to the control group, the dogs in the drowning phase failed to learn that they could easily escape, and simply remained on the grid to accept the shock. In essence, if shown that its efforts are pointless in an old paradigm, dogs quickly learn to accept their fate in a new aversive paradigm - and do so, not with a yelp, but with a whimper.
The same dynamic applies in the workplace. Pair people with a boss who doesn't do anything meaningful with their concerns, worries, or ideas for improvement - and over time - most will learn to accept the conditions of their poorly run workplace, and do little more than what is absolutely necessary to continue bringing home a paycheck. Mediocrity, not operational excellence, becomes the watchword in such environments.
And such was the case with the technicians in the service division described earlier. For years, the service techs endured being given incorrect equipment lists, being sent to the wrong jobs, or being pulled off of a scheduled maintenance call in favor of an unscheduled emergency. To add insult to injury, they often had to hand credits to these same, now angry customers, whose maintenance was never completed.
We could be tempted to blame a faulty software program, or a far from streamlined process map (both of which were true), for these problems, but to do so would be to miss the true root cause as to why such problems were allowed to flourish in the first place. This centered on what happened after people tried to voice their frustrations or take the initiative to fix what was broken. And it could be summed up in one word - nothing. When they brought their frustrations to their boss, he nodded, acknowledged the problem - but nothing of substance changed. If they pressed the issue, he often delegated the problem for additional oversight, which merely resulted in additional unnecessary steps in what was an already inefficient and bloated process. When the techs imputed changes to the balky software system - as instructed - the system merely defaulted to the previous information, and they again arrived at the job with the wrong equipment. Nor were any standards set for techs to efficiently prioritize their call schedule or 5S their rigs.
Predictably, as these problems dragged on and it became more than apparent that their boss would do little to initiate meaningful process improvements, the techs did what most people in such situations do - they accepted that there was little they could do to make the situation better - and unhappily resigned themselves to being an ineffectual part of an underachieving status quo.
We are happy to report that this company is well on its way in its Lean journey. They are re-tooling and streamlining division processes and are taking the necessary steps to improve their handoffs and information flow. But none of this would have come about if they had decided to give themselves a "pass" and were unwilling to hear some very uncomfortable and unflattering feedback (what their president termed as a 'cultural colonoscopy' about how they were performing as leaders.)
In our next Newsletter: Can Lean Culture be Measured?
In a word: Yes. There are behavioral indices that can be assessed as to whether or not a culture, and its leadership, is ready to make the changes necessary to adopt Lean practices. This same assessment process can also identify the means and methods for cultural improvement.