Overcoming A Major Obstacle to Adopting Lean Management
Introduction. For a team to get things done we all realize the importance of organization. The career of any baseball coach would be cut short if he told the players to run out on the field and play ball without assigning positions to each one. Everyone to play as they wanted. No doubt chaos would ensue.
If you want to become the pitcher on a pro-team, you have become the best pitcher available. If you want to be the first baseman on a pro-team you have to become the best first baseman available. But if you want to win, your TEAM has to become the best baseball team in the league. Having a team of world class players doesn’t mean much if they can’t play together.
Everyone is familiar with the “Miracle on Ice” that occurred back in 1980. The United States Ice Hockey team’s coach, Herb Brooks, took a squad of college kids up against the legendary team from the Soviet Union at the Olympic Games. Despite the long odds, they beat the Soviet Union. As another example, look at the USA basketball team at the world championships in 2006. They had a successful coaching staff and a team of National Basketball Association stars. They finished third in the world games, losing to Greece, a team with not even one NBA player.
The often-sighted reason for such performance is team work. But what does that mean?
Watch these winning teams play and one thing stands out – although each team member has their primary roles and responsibilities, every member will seamlessly perform the function necessary at the moment required. The left tackle picking up a fumble and performing the job of linebacker by running for the touchdown. The pitcher or center fielder moves in to cover 2nd base when the 2nd baseman moves back to catch a fly ball. Roles and responsibilities change for the moment, driven by the needs for the team to accomplish its goal – winning the game.
It would be silly to watch that left tackle stand next to the fumbled ball and do nothing because it’s “not his job”, yet that’s what we see frequently in business.
Organizations that are effective implementing Lean processes exhibit similar traits as these winning sports teams.
Our Functional Perspective. Organizations are designed around the primary characteristics of work to be performed and it is generally very effective at addressing most of the problems faced by the company. Job descriptions can be written, tasks and goals identified, key measures of performance established and tracked. It’s nice, clean and communicates the organization’s expectations. It is very effective if the problems encountered can be categorized nicely along organization lines.
Unfortunately, many of the problems for a company are the ones that cannot be categorized along organizational lines. These issues remain unresolved and oftentimes even unrecognized. Buried behind piles of inventory, countless unproductive meetings and numerous reports and emails these problems get pushed around but never resolved. Blame and accusation can frequently be heard as a result of the frustration that builds.
When the organization doesn’t seem to work we may blame employees for not caring. Employees might appear to be part of the problem and lacking motivation. We like to believe that if they would just care enough they would see these problems and take steps to solve it on their own. Pep talks, pay raises and motivational posters are some of the responses by management we might see. None, of course, work. There’s more to it than motivation. Fortunately, there is a solution to this dilemma.
Total Systems Perspective. To resolve these issues, we must first have a total system understanding of issues and move away from our functional views. We need to recognize that many of the problems that confront us cut across organizational lines and our current organizational structure will not function properly in these situations. We need a way to fix these problems whenever they appear, but it first starts by changing our mindset and looking past our current organizational structure. It’s important to understand how all the elements of an organization need to be brought to bear on many issues.
Winning sports teams recognize this and regularly practice various scenarios to develop the team’s ability to respond to situations requiring actions that do not fall neatly into the players established roles. In business, we need to develop this same ability, e.g. quickly come together in a cross functional way to direct the necessary resources towards solving a problem that does not fall nicely into our current organizational structure. This is much easier said than done.
On the sports team, roles may temporarily change to meet the challenges of a particular situation. The same thing can be accomplished in business by the formation of a temporary cross functional team. This does occur frequently but it usually requires strong formal management support and oversight to succeed. This takes time and a lot of effort and may work on large scale problems but will leave many other issues on the side lines. The organization needs to develop the ability to formally or informally create teams temporarily to solve problems both big and small.
Lean tools, especially Policy Deployment, can be very effective in supporting the temporary rearrangement of roles as needed but the hardest part seems to be more cultural or perhaps it’s just attitude. Each employee needs to feel part of the company team first, the departmental team second. In many companies, it’s the reverse which makes the formation of teams, especially informal teams, very difficult.
A team on the assembly line identified a solution to a productivity problem that required changing the racking of the parts delivered to the line. One of the team members called a mechanic to the line and discussed the changes they wanted to make. The mechanic made a temporary rack out of plastic tubing for the assembly team to try. Some adjustments were made and the permanent steel rack was made and installed. All this was done with NO management involvement and very minimal involvement by the supervisors. In fact, the role of the supervisors was to provide support to the teams. In a Lean organization, this goes on continuously, every person, every day.
The mechanics of supporting this mindset are way beyond the scope of this article. I will say this much, it is reflected in every aspect of the company, e.g. job descriptions, meeting agendas, goals, budgets etc., even performance reviews. It all begins with changing how we approach an issue. Do we try to make the problem fit into our organizational mold or do we see the problem from a total systems perspective and adjust our organization to tackle the problem?
Conclusion. To solve many of our problems in business we have to recognize that many of them cut across organizational lines. We need to look at those problems not from the standpoint of how to categorize it into functional lines but rather objectively consider all the resources needed to effectively identify the root cause and solve the problem and bring these resources together to solve the problem. There are a wide variety of problem solving techniques but none of them will work until we bring all the necessary resources to the table in a collaborative team environment focused not on individual or departmental successes but on the company’s success solving the problem.