Lean seems to be getting a bad reputation in our industry. I talk to managers who complain about not achieving anticipated results when they truly believe they are diligently implementing the lean philosophy.

Upon investigation I always find two prominent flaws in the implementation plan. One is that the manager is trying to drive the initiative while working in a vacuum. The other is that the manager isn't utilizing a methodical approach in applying the lean tools. This series will focus on both of these flaws from the view of what a successful implementation process should look like, with examples of situations that leaders and implementers of lean encounter on a regular basis.

Every lean implementation must have the commitment of company executives in order to be successful. However, commitment doesn't mean that the chief executive should micro manage the process every step of the way. Just as there's no "I" in TEAM, there's also no "I" in LEAN. I've mentioned on a number of occasions that lean is a team-based philosophy that achieves continuous improvement through the collaboration of staff across all disciplines of the business.

Underutilized resources

It has been my experience that managers fortunate enough to be surrounded by an engineering staff mistakenly view those resources as the only intellectual, creative and innovative body of the organization, while the greater resource for improvement, the person executing the process, remains underutilized.

That is not to imply that engineers are not a valuable resource. Every human resource in a company is a storehouse of creativity and innovation waiting to be opened. The only difference between the engineer and the executor of the work is that one has a greater ability to articulate ideas, time to experiment with those ideas to perfect them, and closeness to the boss's ear to sell the ideas. Given an opportunity to collaborate, the executor can bring a dimension to the table that others may have overlooked.

Collaboration needed

In many organizations where managers wear lots of different hats and engineers are an unaffordable luxury, senior staff believes that they are the only ones who process the knowledge to deal with the challenges that precede and accompany change. What I find to really be the case is that managers haven't learned how to relinquish some control and engage their staff. That's why I decided to address this next series to making the shift from task-managing to relationship-building and collaboration.

The November 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review had a quote from Smart Choices authors, John Hammond, Ralph Keeney and Howard Raiffa that exemplifies the position of a plant manager who I talked to recently. The article stated that too often we try to seek out "information that supports our existing instinct or point of view while avoiding information that contradicts it." In my case, the plant manager was facing a challenge in implementing the changes that he wanted because all of the supervisors didn't think like him. It was as though his way was the only way. By developing plans for change in a vacuum, he would avoid any information that might contradict his perception of the right way to do things.

Defining the best solution

In a lean culture where collaboration is the norm, contradictory views are welcome as a means of defining the best possible solution. How can a manager make the transition from controlling the outcome to collaborating in achieving the best solution? Chances are his manager operates in much the same way, so coaching may have to come from outside the organization.

Proper training procedures, policy and execution are not just a requirement for a successful lean implementation on the shop floor. Training is an important element in providing managers with the tools they need to succeed as well. You can find many companies offering leadership and supervisory training, succession planning, team development and other assistance that supports the current task-managing approach. However, there are few that are dedicated to guiding a manager through the process of relinquishing some control while engaging and empowering his or her staff in the lean journey. An absence of adequate resources led me to launch The Center for Lean Learning, LLC in 2007.

The center is a consortium of furniture industry experts whose collective passion is to partner with managers and staff as their company makes the transition to lean. The center is a full-service agency capable of responding to any need.

Industry resources

I recently met with the program coordinator of Stiles Education, Martha Dahl, to see what training they have to offer. Stiles management recognizes that a workforce of equipment experts is not the only ingredient for continuous improvement. They understand that managers must be able to engage those experts in a collaborative way.

This is an excerpt from one of their courses titled, Supervisor's Building Blocks for Meeting Goals and Objectives. "Supervisors will learn the skills that will equip their team to hit goals and meet objectives. Students will learn how to develop and maintain working relationships and create a positive working environment . . . Explore how to communicate, motivate, create loyalty, resolve conflicts, manage tasks and delegate responsibilities to establish a more productive work team." The staff of Stiles Education continues to identify training needs and to develop programs to bridge the gap.

Earlier I stated that one of the flaws in a manager's ability to successfully implement lean is his or her attempt to drive the initiative while working in a vacuum. The solution is quite simple train, engage and equip the staff to partner in the journey to lean. A recent visit to a plant that has been on the lean journey for about eight years revealed why this simple solution is so important to follow.

This 500 employee plant is part of a larger organization that hasn't embraced the lean philosophy. Management at this plant is implementing lean on the shop floor only through the leadership of one person. Unfortunately, this person doesn't have the presentation skills necessary to educate and inform the workforce in lean, so management has chosen not to engage in training. Management has also chosen not to implement the foundational tool of lean workplace organization. Plant management likes to promote the fact that they are "lean," which is not the case. The only thing that keeps continuous improvement moving forward is the tenacity of a single person.

In order for lean to be successful there has to be a mechanism in place that ensures the journey will be self-perpetuating and not dependent on a single individual. When that person leaves the organization, continuous improvement comes to a halt. Moving managers out of their task-managing comfort zone and into a relationship-building role will be covered in greater detail in the next article.

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