Can you hear that? Listen closely.
It starts off quite softly. It’s just a whisper. Certainly, no one is threatened by a whisper. But as the journey begins, it grows. The rumble is ominous. Slowly, but yet suddenly, it becomes undeniable. Everyone hears it; they can almost feel it. It echoes far and wide, piercing the airwaves from the shop floor to the C-suite. Left unaddressed, it has the power to end the journey before it can ever really begin.
It is a question. No, it is THE QUESTION. And in due time, every organization on the path to True North will have to answer: How will you make time for improvement?
A few weeks ago, a version of THE QUESTION was posted on the Lean Edge:
As CEO of my company I have a grasp of lean and have experienced it in my career, but now that I’m CEO, I find it difficult to ask my people to make time for improvement work. They’re already completely busy doing their regular work. Moreover, this company is in the outdoor sports industry, and many people join these companies because they want time to climb, backpack, canoe, etc., and I’m reluctant to ask them to work more hours and sacrifice time for these activities. Any advice?
THE QUESTION invited many responses from amongst the absolute best and brightest Lean thinkers in existence today. Do read each response in its entirety . . . that is, if you can find the time.
- Tracey Richardson: If you don’t have time to do it right first time, when will you have time to do it over?
- Jeff Liker: The key is to learn to level the workload for improvement
- Karen Martin: Start the conversation
- Mark Graban: No time for improvement? Then find time
- Jon Miller: No Time for Kaizen? Check Your Assumptions
- Sammy Obara: Continuous improvement is more than repetitive improvement
- Dave Meier: In Toyota improvement ideas and efforts were expected but voluntary
- Art Smalley: This is honestly more about leadership than lean
- Pascal Dennis: Kaizen is the work
- Michael Ballé: Lean is the strategy!
- Dan Jones: Finding Time For Improvements
- Mike Rother: Next Generation Lean Practice
Although each author does present a slightly different argument, there is a general consensus around a few key points which I summarize below:
- In the current state, organizations find time to do the work, yet assume (or choose) that they have no additional time to improve the work.
- There is much time wasted in how the work is done now, which is time that could and should be used to improve the work.
- Leaders must see that improving the work is a priority, is not optional, and needs to be part of how the work is done.
- Therefore, leaders must choose to find or make time available for improvement or suffer the consequences of failing to keep pace with an ever-changing world and falling behind the competition.
Admittedly, I have no business finding fault with any of the much esteemed Lean thought leaders above. However, after reading through their collective responses, I feel that further dialogue on the topic is warranted. My primary concern stems from a principle that practitioners of “real Lean” already know all too well: there are no shortcuts on the journey to Lean.
Many of the authors suggest that those who lack time for improvement do so because of a choice that they have made – or have not made – or that they have not sufficiently prioritized doing otherwise. I do not disagree with these points. However, although it may not have been the message the authors were intending to deliver – although, upon scrutinizing the arguments several times, I cannot help but to believe that some did – readers may be led to believe that improving upon the current condition is simply a matter of making better choices or setting clearer priorities. Unfortunately, however, this line of logic does not hold, and Mr. Rother even goes so far to provide a short clip that explains why not.
Repeat after me. There are no shortcuts on the journey to lean.
Although the desire to dedicate time for improvement may start with choice, commitment and alignment of priorities, the actual time will not simply follow suit. Eliminating what we don’t want, will not necessarily get us what we do want; rather, we need to actively pursue what it is that we desire. We need to frame THE QUESTION in the same way that we would any other organizational imperative: as a challenge which should be approached with a thorough understanding of the current condition in conjunction with many, many cycles of learning. I tip my cap again to Mr. Rother for providing this framework for improvement.
When we approach THE QUESTION not as a question, but as an organizational challenge, it becomes clear that there is no single, simple solution. The actions that can be taken to dedicate time for improvement are prescribed by the current condition of the organization through the practice of PDCA at the leadership level. As Mr. Liker has recently written, “Since Plan-Do-Check-Act is the process needed to carry out sustainable improvement at all levels, it requires skilled practitioners at all levels—from the C-suite to the working level.” The process for improvement should not be different in the board room than it is on the shop floor. Therefore, THE QUESTION provides perhaps the single greatest opportunity for leaders to practice and develop the same skills that are required throughout the rest organization: Plan, Do, Check, Adjust – and repeat.
Indeed, THE QUESTION for organizations on the path to Lean is how will you make time for improvement? Leaders of these organizations need to be aware that they alone must answer THE QUESTION, but that the answers will not come easy. The journey may start with choice, and commitment and prioritization, but the distance can only be covered one step at a time through many cycles of learning and understanding. In this way, leaders do not walk their own path; rather, the shared approach to improvement unites all individuals across all levels of an organization on the same Lean journey.
According to John Maxwell, “a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way”. The leader who does not answer THE QUESTION, who does not make time for improvement, risks falling behind, while the organization sets its own course. Know that it may be difficult or even impossible to catch back up. After all, there are no shortcuts on the journey to Lean.