For best results, think INSIDE the box?

This morning I stumbled on an interesting article titled Need a good idea? Brainstorming won’t help. It caught my attention for two reasons.  First, because it brings a powerful perspective to the topic of stimulating workforce creativity–a key element of going lean.  Second, it is counterintuitive; it argues strongly against the what has become the primary approach that so many lean consultants bring to corporations–pulling together workers for brainstorming events to identify areas to attack waste.  This generally results in a whiteboard of ideas that are fairly easy to address, but many may have little impact on the bottom line (particularly within a large, complex business operating in a dynamic environment–precisely where it is most often applied).  

What, then, is the right approach?  This article points out that much greater benefit comes from bringing people together to identify a single point for them to focus on, and then sending them to work on their own to develop ideas for a solution: 

Such focused questions result in unique answers because you’re forced to respond to a particular issue.

This is precisely what Toyota and other benchmarks of lean do.  As I describe in The Going Lean Fieldbook: A Practical Guide to Lean Transformation and Sustainable Success, these organizations did not pursue waste reduction led by a meandering set of brainstorming events.  Instead, they targeted clear transformational focal points that would advance their overall maturity in attaining specific, desired outcomes. 

How can a company get started?  Read more in my post, The Need for Conducting a Dynamic Value Assessment.

Going ‘Lean’ is About People

Last year I posted the article, “Four Signs Your Lean Initiative is Promoting Fear” as a commentary to a popular piece on workplace fear.  Fear is the last thing that should come from going lean–however, from what I have seen, poorly implemented lean efforts can be a major contributor to workplace fear.

Why do I say this? I have spoken with many people who will not speak up about basic problems with their organizations’ lean implementation. Many are concerned that lean is being implemented in a way that isn’t really helping.  They become frustrated when they take time away from work to adjust processes that they feel have only limited impact on the business. Results aren’t reaching the customer or the bottom line. And many early gains end up backsliding. Most often they are angry that no one seems to be interested in attacking the real “waste” that will require making deeper changes that cross functional lines–efforts that are clearly harder, but offer the potential to dramatically improve their business.

After hearing what lean can really do, it is natural for people to become troubled when they see it implemented as a series of narrowly-defined projects that seem focused on shaving costs by stretching existing methods a little further. This is compounded by the negative reaction they face when they raise concerns. It is not hard to see how this contributes to a belief that that real feedback is not valued–that any negative comments will be seen as a challenge to what they perceive to be top-down driven initiative. The result is mistrust and fear.

These are generally not problem employees, as those who question lean are often portrayed. Instead, they appear to be smart individuals who truly seem to want to help their organization succeed. They simply don’t see lean as a meaningful path to creating the substantial change they know is possible.

Lean is about valuing people across the workforce–breaking down barriers that lets them create tremendous value for the customer and the corporation. Toyota demonstrates this, as do all other benchmarks for lean success. So if the workforce says lean isn’t working, it probably isn’t working!

Let me emphasize that going lean is not the problem; the problem is implementing poorly conceived waste reduction projects in the name of lean. In contrast, I have written about organizations that clearly see the need for creating real excitement in the workforce (you can read more about the criticality of generating this excitement in my new book, The Going Lean Fieldbook).

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