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Ask the Expert - Lean Leadership: Our Daily Huddle Meetings are Exercises in Frustration

Even a well-intentioned leader can frustrate, demoralize and stymie energetic and conscientious workers if the leader lacks an understanding about his/her role in leading a "huddle meeting."  Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership: Have a question about lean leadership? Let Larry Fast tackle it for you.

Question: Lean manufacturing has come to our office, and we are very excited about the process. However, our manager has begun holding "huddle" meetings every morning that tend to last between 15 and 45 minutes. Our department is very busy, and these meetings are creating additional stress. To make matters worse, we follow the following schedule: Monday-Priorities for the week; Tuesday-new info about lean; Wednesday-Update on priorities; Thursday-Kudos to co-workers; Friday-Something good that happened to you this week. There are nine people in our department, and each of us must speak, but only to the day's assigned topic. We are not allowed to address issues or concerns. How can I gently let my manager know these meetings are not accomplishing anything?

Answer: This reader raises an important question because even a well-intentioned leader with this lack of understanding about his/her role in leading a "huddle meeting" can frustrate, demoralize and stymie energetic and conscientious workers. Let's start with the basics:

Here's how I think about a huddle meeting: The leader conducts a five- to 15-minute meeting with the key people responsible for executing the plan for the day. In the shop that's often for a 24-hour day. Attendees on the shop floor would be groups like this: value stream(VSM)/department manager, area supervisor(s), maybe the maintenance person, quality person, scheduler.  Typically four to five people. (Others may be brought in ad hoc based on the area's issues and priorities for the day.) The shift hand-offs between the supervisor leaving and the supervisor just coming on is absolutely critical to maintain the alignment until the following morning when the process starts all over again.

It's always a stand-up meeting in the work place.  This is a strong indicator that this will be a short meeting. It creates purpose and urgency to agree on what needs to be done TODAY! The leader's role, in a nutshell, is to achieve understanding and alignment for the day's priorities and to get his people back to work as soon as possible but not later than the maximum of 15 minutes. If anyone loses focus, they will immediately be pulled back to the priorities of TODAY by the leader. (Failing that, a team member should intervene to get help everyone back to the day's agenda. No low-priority side trips allowed.)

In the office the thinking is the same. The leader, just like a coach in sports, calls the play for the day with team input. What are the "must do" priorities of the day? Does each person understand the priorities and their respective roles in executing the plan? Do all team members leave with complete alignment and focus? The boss needs to make it clear that it is "OK" to say no to those who would pull any team member away from executing the agreed-upon plan for the day. A detractor who persists should be asked to call your boss who will deliver the same message!

Now let's get back to the specifics of reader's question.

Lean is about eliminating waste. Conducting five days of 45-minute huddle meetings burns 3.75 labor hours. Five days of 15 minutes burns 1.25 hours. The current process includes 67% waste. Time is our most critical resource. We must be very careful how we spend it.

  • Monday: "Weekly priority setting" is nowhere in the scope of any huddle meeting. The process takes too long, takes too much time and doesn't recognize that "stuff happens" and daily planning is the only true value-add process for those relied upon to execute the week's plan, i.e. you have to execute one-day-at-a-time-five times. That means knowing the day-by-day status of the execution for the week.
  • Tuesday: "New info about lean."  If this is intended to continue to educate and train, then that's great. But it's a separately scheduled event and may well be beneficial to a group larger than those in the huddle meeting. Simply put, it's not a topic appropriate for a huddle meeting.
  • Wednesday: "Update on priorities." If this is an update on the execution of the priorities, then I'm all for it. The only suggestion I have here is to do this every day, not just on Wednesday. Re-read Monday above.
  • Thursday: "Kudos to co-workers." Another great idea, wrong process. Your Lean Daily Management (LDM) routine should deal with kudos in real time when it's most meaningful.  When the manager or supervisor is doing the normal walks through the work area (Gemba walks), that's the time to stop, look someone in the eye, shake their hand and say thank you. It doesn't get any better than that.
  • Friday: "Something good that happened to you this week. There are nine people in our department and each of us must speak, but only to the day's assigned topic. We are not allowed to address issues or concerns." Again, well-intentioned but the huddle meeting is simply the wrong forum. Friday's huddle meeting agenda is the same as every other day.

Also concerning is that the agenda requires everyone to say something. That in and of itself creates stress for the participants who really have nothing to say at that time.  That should be OK. (If this reticence to participate is chronic, then explore "the why" one-on-one. These are often folks who are extremely introverted and need to be drawn in by the leader.)  I understand the leader wanting to stay focused on the topic of the day, but I would urge that a leader should always have time to listen to issues or concerns of team members. If the concerns aren't relevant to the current discussion, agree to take it offline and then follow up one-on-one later in the day.

Here are a few questions/statements I've known to work well for leaders of a five- to 15-minute huddle meeting:

  • How did we do yesterday on our execution of the focused priority set?
  • Were there any significant issues that carry over and still require our attention today?
  • Ok, let's set our priorities for today.
  • Are there any concerns that require contingency planning now?
  • Do each of you understand and agree with our plan for today?
  • Ok, team. Let's go make it happen!

The leader establishes the standing agenda for the meetings, the pace, the alignment and the focus of the entire team. Now the leader needs to get out of the way and allow the people to focus on the execution. The leader should always stand firm on the day's agenda unless there is some complete customer or in-house disaster that requires immediate re-planning. Everything else, if it's both important and urgent, will be dealt with the next day. (In the meantime, the boss may need to do a bit of pre-planning in order to go prepared to tomorrow's huddle meeting if a course correction is indeed required.)

If your organization does not have a set of standard work for huddle meetings wherever they're used, I urge you to design and commit to such a form, by work environment and require 100% compliance to its daily use. Developing this kind a formal, disciplined process will help you stay firmly on the path to excellence.

If you haven't checked already, there is an abundance of great resources online relative to LDM processes. Check them out for form and content; design your own that fits your needs depending on the work area; educate and train your people on the process; and commit all LDM templates to standard work documents in your authorized formal systems.

Finally, there is also lots of great content online regarding the 15 minute huddle meeting. Check them out as well. One that I especially like is at www.leanleader.org. 

I know there must be lots of readers who can share success on these topics that will assist our readers. Let us hear from you!

Larry Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of "The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence: A Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence." The second edition was released in 2015. As Belden’s VP of manufacturing Fast led a transformation of Belden plants in the late '80s and early '90s that included cellularizing about 80% of the company’s equipment around common products and routing, and the use of what is now know as lean tools. Fast is retired from General Cable Corp., which he joined in 1997. As General Cable's senior vice president of operations, Fast launched a manufacturing excellence strategy in 1999. Since the launch of the strategy, there have been 34 General Cable IndustryWeek “Best Plants Finalist awards, including 12 IW Best Plants winners. Fast holds a bachelor's degree in management and administration from Indiana University and is a graduate from Earlham College’s Institute for Executive Growth. He also completed the program for management development at the Harvard University School of Business.

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