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Why It Makes Sense (Sometimes) to Start With Hoshin Kanri

Strategy deployment is a powerful way to get the leadership team involved in the lean journey.

For a long time, I’ve been dismissive of organizations that want to start their lean journeys with hoshin kanri, (also known as strategy deployment). When you’ve got a company where people are not engaged (at best) or suspicious of management (at worst), it seems to me that getting people involved in everyday improvement to make their jobs easier is a better place to start. And when the leadership team sequesters itself in yet another offsite, after which the CEO portentously announces the latest strategic plan (but this time using the Japanese term hoshin kanri to ensure heightened confusion), you’ve got a foolproof way to foster employee cynicism.

The dreaded X-matrix makes matters even worse. It’s bestowed upon workers like the tablets of the Ten Commandments, divinely inspired guidance for the next year. Employees, of course, see it as just another damned chart, but with the special pain in the ass factor of having to crane their heads around like a stork to read it from start to finish, while using a ruler to make sure that they match the right metric to the each initiative. And finally there’s the process of “catchball,” which for some reason the lean community actually thinks is English. It’s not. (Seriously. Did your father ever ask you to play "catchball" with him? I doubt it.) It’s Japanese English, and it’s not at all clear to the uninitiated what it is. Between the special language and the special tool, I haven’t been a big fan of starting with hoshin.

Until now.

Recently, my colleague and friend Katie Anderson pointed out something I’ve completely missed: that strategy deployment is a powerful way to get the leadership team involved in the lean journey.

If you’re lucky, you have a CEO like Art Byrne, who relishes the chance to swing a sledgehammer, move machines and do work at the front lines. But most CEOs, and other denizens of the C-suite, aren’t like Art Byrne. Getting them to embrace daily improvement is a struggle, because they want to focus on bigger issues. But because strategy deployment starts out with very high-level thinking—what does the organization stand for, and where do we want to go over the next three years—it’s comparatively easy to get leadership to participate. After all, no one in top management wants to miss the big strategic planning session. Miss a kaizen event or a gemba walk, sure. Miss a leadership offsite? Never.

Lean thinkers can use that intellectual (and emotional) foot in the door to gain leadership support for continuous improvement. Eventually, of course, the leadership team will need to embrace daily improvement. But that’s a heavy lift for many of them at the start.

I’m seeing this dynamic play out in my own consulting. Last year I struggled terribly—and quite honestly, failed—to get the leadership team at one of my clients to engage. Lean was something for the shop floor and middle management to do. The C-suite felt they were too busy to muck around with daily kaizen. They didn’t make lean a priority, and it was business as usual. It wasn’t until the CEO of the parent company demanded that they get involved with the lean efforts that they began participating—and then, they started with strategy deployment.

By contrast, one of my current clients has started with hoshin kanri, and not surprisingly, the leadership team is fully engaged and committed. They haven’t yet gotten involved in the daily work of lean, but as the improvement projects have been getting fleshed out, they’re seeing where and how they need to participate in order to reach their strategic objectives.

Strategy deployment isn’t the easiest tool in the lean toolbox. In fact, I think you can make a good argument that it’s not the best place to start if you want to drive cultural change throughout the organization. But increasingly, I’m seeing that strategy deployment may just be the spoonful of sugar that helps the lean medicine go down with leadership, particularly in large institutions. And that might be the best reason of all to start with it.

Dan Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a firm that helps organizations become faster, stronger and more agile through the application of lean principles to knowledge work. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. His book “Building the Fit Organization,” just received the Shingo Research Award.

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