Sustainability contest: System vs. Human

According to the BTOES Nov 2017 Operational Excellence survey, sustainability is the biggest focus area for Operational excellence in the coming year, how should this be achieved? Through a system based approach or through a human-centered focus?

What do we mean by a human-centered focus for sustainability?

There are several elements to a human based approach. The first is to implement the basics of team employee involvement, which involves the creation of team.  It is surprising how many employees do not belong to a team in today’s working world. Outside of manufacturing there is no tangible product to help define the process that people work in -so their work gets defined by the task and the function they work in. The employee needs to belong to a team which is defined through the processes that employees work in as well as the technical expertise provided by their function. In manufacturing this is relatively easy as the work can naturally define the group. In the office or business process, however the focus on task and function mean that teams evolve differently and do not respect the process. In this case a balance needs to be struck between the needs of the process, customer value and functional expertise. Teams need to be of the right size to stimulate innovation whilst avoiding larger groups which can splinter and form sub-groups.

Once the team is defined the next step is to focus its activities around a team board through daily and weekly meetings.  The team needs to be coached in the tools of the Lean daily management system and given time to meet daily and “do” weekly improvement work away from the daily activities. Improvement activities should be focused around firstly identifying the key processes and then improving them to provide an initial stability or step change in performance. After the first round of improvement, process monitoring should help identify issues, problems and further areas to improve their key processes. The team will be self-sufficient in managing and improving the process – some people call this “The self-healing process”.

Providing the team with the system and structure to improve their processes and remove daily frustrations and road blocks helps motivate and energize teams to continue with the Lean Daily Management System. It also provides a structure for the outputs and actions from the larger projects, (Value stream mapping/Business Process Improvement/Practical problem solving) giving them a home in each team to enable delivery. This structure then provides the sustainability element not only for small daily improvements but also the delivery of the actions that deliver step change process improvements.

The leaders’ role in supporting the system should not be underestimated. Their initial role is to teach the tools and techniques of the Lean Daily Management System. Leaders teaching is the first step. The gap here should not be underestimated. In the first training of leader sessions we ran with one organisation, 25% of the leaders were terrified to take hold of the pen and write on the flip chart! Their style was command and control from behind a desk. It did not take long to recognize that their deep-seated management style could not be changed and they were not part of the future system for that business.

The next step for leaders is to improve their own “core skills” as defined by Frank Devine (Accelerated Improvement). This set of skills provides the foundation for effective leadership and partners well with Lean people systems. It works though first of all setting the expectations of team members and then using recognition, coaching and constructive feedback to drive the right positive behaviors within teams. The opportunity to use these “core skills” is driven by the implementation of Leadership standard work – the PDCA for the leader to check and validate the systems and processes of their team.

At a senior, level the role of the CEO of the organisation is pivotal in closing “the middle management gap”. This is the gap created when a top-level initiative like Operational Excellence is deployed at the front line. It creates energy and results through an empowered front line which further motivates senior leaders to sponsor more activities. However, this direct line to the action by passes the middle layers of managers. Excluding them from the action, leads to a variety of reactions from support to fence-sitting to outright resistance. In one organisation we worked with, a senior “middle” manager actively disrupted the Operational Excellence training by constantly changing delegates, meaning the training could not take place. The “human” answer in this situation was for the CEO of the business to set objectives for each layer of the organisation to increase the competence of their people, hence support the training.

What do we mean by system based sustainability?

System based sustainability is centered around the use of the use of more mechanistic enablers. The first element is the choosing the right key performance indicators. Typically, we use a basket of measures which focus on the past, for example all financial measures are facts about what has happened and not what will happen. The analogy of how we drive a car is used to illustrate this point: Whilst we are driving we are more concerned with the next turn we have to make, how far do we have to go, how long will it take rather than how many miles have we driven or was the last turn a left or a right. The future becomes a lot more predictive when you have forward looking key performance indicators. Relying on lagging indicators leads to a more reactive and fire-fighting approach.

We always get asked about defining a forward-looking measure or action to help “see the future”. Problems in business are often left to fester and grow as laborious reporting mechanisms delay the reaction to discover and resolve the root cause. To get on the front foot, leadership needs to “go see”. This includes activity in the factory as well as in the office. Key processes should be defined. Their the status needs to be understood and leaders need to react to daily issues rapidly through action systems and escalation.  It should be clear if we are winning or losing that day. The presence of leadership at the coal face also motivates employees to raise issues and problems to help get them resolved. Leaders reacting and supporting problems solving through coaching also sets the shadow of behaviour that others follow.

The next area to consider is the alignment of the key performance indicators. For this to happen they have to be aligned to the customer externally and process value internally. Taking the example of one process we reviewed recently – the recruitment process for operators. We were asked to speed up the process but when we looked at the actual recruitment process, it only took 7 days from expression of interest to day 1 on the factory floor. However, when we examined the management approval process, this took 3 months or more! The process was only measured at the end once approval had been given to recruit, whereas the real delays were caused by the management approval process. So, in this case it was clear that value was about lead time from identified vacancy to recruitment rather than just the recruitment process.

In order to align leadership with process critical points – this need to be identified in the improvement stage and the process experts need to identify and make these part of the Leadership standard work (LSW) for leaders – so process teams are identifying how they would like to be supported through Kamishibai system.

One system that is often underestimated is that of communications.

In several organisations we have worked in, the Executive Team requested that the initial pilot workshops be “undercover” in the belief that it should only be publicized once good results have been achieved. This “undercover” operation confused the organisation. It resulted in many questions and rework 1:1 discussions and meetings to explain what was going on, even though it was fully sponsored by the executive team. In the end the gap was recognized, with a role created to project manage and communicate what was going on to the organisation.

So, who wins the battle? Is it the system or the human that gives the better results?

Clearly both are needed to succeed. The human side provides the engagement and energy to get people motivated to do and to keep on doing the improvement actions. Conversely the system approach provides the structure and logic to orchestrate large organisations.

By Neil Trivedi

Neil Trivedi is a highly experienced Strategy and Transformation Consultant and qualified Lean expert, with broad experience across global platforms within the Automotive, Aerospace, Food, FMCG, Transportation, Biomedical, and Public Sectors. Helping organisations improve their performance by collaboratively tackling complex business problems and designing and implementing solutions that demonstrate tangible benefits to the business. An excellent leader, motivator and manager of people, who communicates well and persuades and influences at all levels within an organisation.

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