Key to a Successful Lean Implementation? Try a Little Conversation

Understand that the importance of these efforts in engaging employees isn't simply a "morale raising exercise" or a ploy to appear to be a warm and fuzzy leader.

I used to do a good bit of supervisor training. There was one topic that was especially difficult to get across: coaching. The core concept of the module spoke to the value of simply talking with operators and employees about the work they were doing and eliciting ideas from them as to how it might be done more safely, more easily and more efficiently.

The majority of the supervisors just didnt seem to be able to grasp the idea that they could simply engage in two-way conversation with employees about their jobs. They found it difficult to avoid giving one-way feedback (usually of the constructive type), giving directions or making recommendations themselves. They viewed their own roles as talking to rather than talking with employees.

I never fully understood this reluctance to talk with employees about their own work without a preconceived agenda because Ive found it to be very effective in my own work as a manager and a consultant. In fact, Ive come to believe that simple conversation with managers, staff and operating employees is central to the success of any lean enterprise implementation.

Through these conversations, ideas are developed, unforeseen problems and barriers are identified, roots of existing problems are uncovered, questions are answered, concerns are addressed, and, most important of all, interest and energy is created and spread. In my own experience, substantial and positive changes have been made to lean deployment plans based on information gathered through such conversations. Had the changes to the approach not been made, the success of the entire implementation would have been jeopardized.

In one case, I was helping my employer, a high end hotel firm, carry out an employee survey at one of its operations. We had held any number of planning meetings with all the right managers, and the effort was ready to move ahead. No one had mentioned any possible problems with our plans. During a lunchroom conversation with a supervisor, I learned that a similar survey had been conducted five years previously. Once the results of that survey were compiled and reported, two managers lost their jobs. Negative results from employees in their departments were given as a reason for their dismissal. Acting on this information, we announced that the results of the survey would be given only to the managers at that hotel and not to anyone at the corporate office. The hotel managers would be responsible for developing a plan to respond to the survey results and communicating that plan to corporate officers.

Headquarters had a bit of trouble buying into the idea but eventually agreed. The total quality initiative that we subsequently deployed led to that hotel going to the top of its category in measured customer satisfaction.

In several other cases, Ive found that employees who attended and actively participated in workshops on 5S and quick setup didnt actually acquire a full understanding of the value of those tools. 5S was seen as simply another approach to housekeeping and quick change only as a way of reducing machine downtime. In these cases, Ive been able to correct these misperceptions before they impacted the initiative.

Talk With, Not To

Conversation is just that; talking with, not talking to. Its showing a curious temperament with respect to what employees are thinking and doing. Its the ability to simply start and carry on the conversation with no particular agenda other than to engage with the employee. Its asking lots of questions and genuinely listening to the responses. Its being willing to add to the conversation with your own thoughts and ideas while making certain the other party has ample opportunity to give voice to his or her own.

Some conversations lead to important insights and ideas; many others simply go over the highlights and lowlights of the hunting season or the local sports teams. Conversations can be short or go on for an hour. On the other hand, if most of your conversations are very short (e.g. Hows it going, George? Its going good, Carl. Thats great. Let me know if you have any problems.), you may not be pursuing your opportunities assertively enough.

Managers need to view these conversations as an important part of their role in supporting the lean enterprise initiative. In other words, it will be incumbent upon them to start conversations with employees, not simply be willing to engage with employees that start conversations with them.

Leaders need to be proactive about approaching employees and starting the conversations themselves. Leaders need to actively seek opportunities to start these conversations. Has a kaizen event been conducted recently? Go talk with the participants about it. Are teams working on specific lean projects? Go talk with team members about what they are doing, the successes they are having and the challenges they are facing. Has a change been implemented in a given department or area? Go talk with managers, supervisors and employees there and get them to talk about the changes. Are there supervisors or employees who still seem to be resisting the lean approach? Go talk with them about their concerns and questions. Put it on your calendar and just go do it. Then do it again in a few days.

Understand that the importance of these efforts in engaging employees isnt simply a morale raising exercise or a ploy to appear to be a warm and fuzzy leader. You are engaging in these conversations because they are a vital element of a successful lean implementation. The positive communications youll create and the important information you uncover will pay you back many times over for the time and effort you devote. Youll be taking the first steps toward creating a culture of sustained continual improvement.


Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. Bohan has a bachelor's in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master's of science in organizational development from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has published articles in National Productivity Review, Quality Progress and ASTD's Training and Development Journal. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance. Bohan can be reached at [email protected].

See also:

Want to Succeed at Lean? Forget Cost Cutting

Small Manufacturers Need to be Agile, Not Lean

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