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Lean on Me: Supporting Your Staff Through the Lean Process

Lean isn’t just about process improvements and efficiency. It also requires cultivating a culture of respect. In this first of a 3-part series on understanding the people side of lean we explore how focusing on staff can help overcome the common obstacles to lean implementation. See also, Part 2 and Part 3.

A lean process improvement is initiated in the workplace, and, despite good intentions, the message that comes across is “Hey, we think we have a lot of waste here.” That sends alarm bells ringing so loudly, people can barely hear the next words. Then come consultants wielding spreadsheets, reams of Post-its, and a bunch of complicated new words. Somewhere along the line, management admits that, by the way, we’re not going to deprioritize anyone’s other assignments, just add more very long meetings and difficult analytic work. In response, employees feel discouraged or distrustful; many may not be invested in the success of the lean initiative. Before it’s even gotten off the ground, the initiative is steeped in failure.

Lean does, in fact, hold great promise for any service delivery organization, and this most certainly includes local government service delivery. Like any shiny new object, the potential for positive or negative impact depends upon the skill and intent of the people using it. And long term success depends on so much more than a few training sessions or a couple of intensive “kaizen” workshops.

Lean, at its core, is a way of thinking. An attitude of relentless pursuit of value, a deep curiosity for solving the real problem, a culture of deep respect. Lean thinking influences the actions and therefore the results of the team or organization. How do you like the results your organization has now? The results you get are a direct reflection of your organization’s priorities, processes, and habits.

The challenge: get beyond a superficial understanding of lean.

Some local governments in Washington State have experienced breakthrough successes using lean. Let’s take permit applications, for example. Kitsap County reduced their time to issue residential permits by 70% and has been able to maintain that level of performance and adopt lean in several other county services. The City of Redmond also cut by 70% the time it takes to issue commercial permits, while maintaining and even improving the quality of those decisions and relations between departments, not to mention their relationship with their business and development community.

Washington counties Spokane, King, Pierce, Thurston, Island, Douglas, and Snohomish, and the cities of SeaTac, Olympia, Tacoma, Issaquah, Kent, Tukwila, and Renton are among many other local governments who have already experimented with lean in multiple services areas, from hiring and finance to elections and road maintenance.

Despite the successes, some staff remain deeply suspicious of lean. What does “lean” really mean, and why are people in local government so excited – or agitated – about it? Isn’t this just another “flavor of the month”? Or the latest disguise of downsizing for reduced budgets? Overheard at the water cooler: Lean stands for Less Employees Are Needed.

We find ourselves with déjà vu at a crossroads: will we continue to deepen our commitment to continuous learning and become adept, or will we move on to the next latest and greatest management fad? When things go right, it’s awesome. But how do we sustain the effort, especially when the going may be slow or rocky?

How can we avoid the scenario described in the opening of this post? When people truly understand waste—tiresome meetings, botched communications, lack of trust, confusion over competing priorities, the absence of meaningful (or any) feedback, redundant or conflicting processes, lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities, doing things over and over that don’t make any sense—they want to let go of it.

The lean journey can be slow and rocky.

Instead of leading with a message like “Our organization needs to increase productivity by 4% each year, or our costs will continue to outstrip our revenues,” start with asking “Can anyone think of something we do that doesn’t make sense? Do you have some ideas about how we can make it better?” Invest the time to listen deeply to how demoralizing existing pain points in your organization’s processes can be.  Pay close attention to people’s own intrinsic motivations for change. You can’t really “make” anyone change, because real change starts from within. If you pay close enough attention, you can identify powerful links between your organizational purpose, what your customers need, and what motivates the people who work there. Once you find this natural alignment, relentlessly coach and support people toward that goal. Then watch the awesome creativity of the people within your organization take hold as they move into problem solving mode.

This fundamental principle of lean thinking has been lost in translation. At Toyota, the pioneering source of lean thinking, two pillars support the house of lean: 1) continuous process improvement and 2) respect for people. I notice a lot of organizations investing in the tools of continuous process improvement but only a very few attending to the pillar of respect for people. Both pillars are foundational and necessary for lean transformation. What would happen if you built a nice new front porch for your house but awoke one day to find one of the two pillars missing? It would fall down!

And so it is with lean implementations that fail to give sufficient attention to the soft side of lean. (This is also true of the majority of change initiatives, not only lean.) Lean doesn’t fail because an organization didn’t do value stream mapping first or didn’t certify enough Six Sigma Green Belts. Lean transformation efforts fail primarily due to neglect of the cultural conditions necessary to sustain continuous process improvement. It’s not the technical side of change that trips us up, it’s the adaptive side. It’s about the people!  Change may bring a very powerful, positive gain -- but it also represents a loss. People naturally need time to process or even grieve that loss. When we don’t recognize or respond well to people’s needs in adapting to change,, we eventually find ourselves right back where we started—perhaps a little disillusioned.

Strategy is critical to create change—and a good strategy often involves technical innovations—but if we don’t attend to the cultural dimensions of change, we’ll never reap the benefits promised by those great new ideas. By cultural dimensions, I mean the shared norms, values, and assumptions your employees live and breathe like air. As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Leaders ignore culture at their peril.

Underutilized talent is the eighth waste of lean.

With lean, everyone has an essential role, and we all need each other to succeed. Establishing a clear mutual purpose is the first step to creating mutual respect. Managers must respect the knowledge of the people doing the front-line work, because managers are simply too far removed from the daily work to really understand what is causing problems. Meanwhile, front-line workers are often too close to the problem to see the big picture and may not remember to ask themselves and each other the bigger or tougher questions. They must respect the strategic context and collective responsibility for long-term success that is the responsibility of management.

At Toyota, it’s considered disrespectful to underutilize each person’s capability to learn and to grow. Underutilized talent is sometimes called the eighth waste in lean, after the more traditional seven wastes (waiting, defects, overproduction, over-processing, transportation, motion, and inventory).

But it’s not enough to simply give people a chance to develop new skills once a year during their annual performance review. People need continuous feedback, clear standards, and something worth striving for. They need to be able to break down their problems into manageable chunks, and they need many chances to explore, learn, try, fail, and try again. This is why coaching people through disciplined problem-solving is at the heart of the Toyota culture. It is a daily habit, and it is how employees at all levels continuously show each other the highest form of respect.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Larisa Benson

Larisa Benson writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Larisa Benson is a teacher of management disciplines, a seeker of new ideas and a fan of people who choose to give their energy and talent in service to community. She is a principal consultant with The Athena Group and a faculty member at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.