9 Cures to Common Continuous Improvement Cultural Challenges

Creating a Lean Culture might require some medicine, a bit of therapy, and some deep meditation. You may feel like Continuous Improvement doesn’t work for your company. Or maybe you feel like your doing all the right stuff and running up against a brick wall trying to turn the corner on culture and performance. Perhaps you’ve tried a few things that you were told would work and they didn’t produce the result you were looking for. Perhaps you just haven’t had the opportunity to see a working CI organization in action. Either way, there are some common themes that are present in every CI journey to varying degrees. These themes are synonymous with illnesses as they plague business results and can spread throughout the organization unless they are stopped before they kill the patient. There are some basic steps you can take to overcome these ailments and truly start to realize some organic acceleration.

Here are 9 Common Lean Culture Illnesses and How to Cure Them:

Illness #1: People recognize opportunities for the company to improve but are fearful of mentioning them to leadership

Everyone has a unique point of view. Therefore everyone sees opportunities that no one else sees. The guy running the packaging machine has a much better idea for why the company gets pallets rejected by the customer due to unsealed boxes than the big boss sitting in a corporate office. I like the saying that “the person closest to the problem, is also the one closest to the solution”. Every company needs a good way of engaging people to improve performance in their area of ownership. To do this, try setting a clearly defined target condition for each employee in the company. Then hold their leaders accountable for coaching their employees to success against their improvement objectives.

Illness #2: The company has to hire externally for leadership positions because talent isn’t being developed internally to step up into higher-level openings

There is a delicate balance between getting results today and developing people for tomorrow. The companies that will lead the pack in the future are the ones that make the greatest investment in developing their people while delighting customers today. Avoid having your business decline to a culture of fire fighting so there’s some energy left over at the end of the day to prepare your people for tomorrow. To do this, create a back-fill (or successor) for every role in the company. Then provide assignments that give the successor experiential learning opportunities. This works even better if the experiential learnings are designed as Continuous Improvement projects that require deep understanding of key processes and provide a benefit to the business.

Illness #3: Leaders expect a short-term ROI for all CI activity with little regard for developing their culture

If serving the customer is at the heart of the business, ROI is the brain. In fact, if you’re not making money, you can’t continue to serve the customer. However, leaders must be careful not to sacrifice the capability to serve tomorrow’s customers by getting overly consumed by the challenges of today. This includes balancing investor payouts with re-investing in growth and development. To do this, couple activities that have great ROI with those that have marginal short-term benefit but are strategic for growth and sustainment. However, keep in mind that most Lean tools are not just one-and-done. When done well, they signify the beginning of the journey and not the end.

Illness #4: The company has a Continuous Improvement program that is disconnected from the strategy

News flash: making progress against your strategy is the definition of improvement. Randomly applying Lean Tools is not necessarily improvement. In fact, you may be wasting precious resources on things that don’t create value for the customer or the business. Don’t fall into the trap of “polishing the doorknobs on the Titanic” in the name of Continuous Improvement. If you find yourself with a so-called “rock solid” CI program, but are consistently losing market share, something is definitely wrong. To fix this, define a clear strategy for how to win in the market. Then challenge every employee to make improvements in their area of ownership that moves the business in the direction of its strategic priorities.

Illness #5: People aren’t getting to the root cause of issues impacting their area

There’s two variants of this issue. One is where people are pushed to hit their numbers everyday by any means; and the other is where operators just band-aid problems and wait for maintenance or management to swoop in and fix them when it’s convenient. It can be a difficult choice to risk not fully satisfying a customer to take the time to get to the root cause of an issue and permanently resolve it. But consider this, issues of today like to mix with the issues of tomorrow, which can result in quite a cocktail of chaos. Better to strike the balance between making the daily numbers and shutting down when needed to fix the process the right way. Your people, the process, you, and the customer will be happier for it in the long run. Start by training your process owners on root cause analysis. Then teach them how to measure their losses and set the expectation that they will make changes to reduce them over time. Then recognize and reward continuous and sustaining improvement in performance.

Click here to gain access to a powerful webinar on Generating the Skill and Will to Improve Performance

Illness #6: People are reluctant to experiment with improvement ideas out of fear of failure

We all love the part of the movie when the hero jumps in to save the day; and want to yell at the TV when the hero fails to make a seamless rescue. But in the movies, the hero is always encouraged to keep trying because otherwise there is no hope. We should do the same in business. We need to be careful not to discourage “right behaviors” like trying to improve performance, even if the result is sub-optimal. Learning and development, which result from trying, are pre-cursers to improvement. To encourage this, instead of focusing on success and failure, switch the focus to learning. Learning happens most effectively through experience, and trail and error. Promote a culture of discovery and sharing over one of “who got the highest numbers”.

Illness #7: People hide performance losses out of fear of “looking bad” or facing consequences

I once had a manager who tried to improve engagement scores by “educating the team” that they were more engaged than they realized. In other words, this manager did not intend to actually engage the people at a higher level, he just wanted to manipulate them into thinking they were already engaged. This manager would have been better off to identify what’s driving the disengagement and fix it. The same is true for any metric that indicates opportunity for improvement such as OEE, First Pass Good, On Time and Full, etc. To cure this, shift the focus away from hitting or failing to hit targets to one of gradual and consistent improvement. When people learn to define success as “getting better”, showing losses becomes less threatening and status quo becomes the dangerous.

Illness #8: Continuous Improvement is delegated to an individual or department and not owned by all

Just about everyone understands how CI can be an incredible asset to a business. But many people lack the skill and will to improve. Some believe that hiring a CI Manager or resource and sticking them in the plant is commitment enough for them. This sets a tone that CI can be done in a silo and the role of leadership is minimal. But you can’t buy a culture of Operational Excellence. You have to build it yourself. A CI resource who is very skilled can help coach but leaders at all levels bear the responsibility to make it happen. To cure this, every leader in the company should be challenged with a performance improvement target that aligns with the company strategy. Then deploy their team’s CI efforts to close the gap. The CI leader should pass their expertise into leaders and process owners via coaching – not by doing it all themselves.

Illness #9: There is a general lack of respect for people at lower levels in the organization

Empowerment is built on 2 fundamental blocks: 1) developing people’s capability so that they can make sound decisions and 2) trusting people to act in good faith and generally do the right thing given the opportunity. Empowering someone requires you to “give up” some of your power to others, resulting in an overall more powerful organization. Engaging people’s hearts and minds to a higher order can unlock unimaginable potential. To cure this, delegate decision-making and problem-solving to the lowest feasible level in the organization. Then coach (but not direct or micro-manage) the performer to further strengthen their capability.

If you find yourself trying to lead a Lean Culture and progress is slow and sometimes backward, don’t despair. What you’re experiencing is perfectly normal and sometimes patience and persistence are needed to shift the organizational culture. Focusing on the areas listed above will have a dramatic effect on moving the needle in the right direction. The key thing to remember is that Lean or Continuous Improvement is not a substitute for good leadership, but it is the ultimate compliment.

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