Mastering Lean Vs. Employee Resistance: How To Bridge The Gap

Incorporating motivational exercises into Lean adoption strategies, enterprises can quickly knock down barriers and achieve greater Lean integration.

The single biggest roadblock to successful implementation of Lean is employee acceptance. Yet most companies fail to address the problems created by the cultural change that going Lean requires. Typically firms introduce Lean by training a few "black belts" who then train the trainers in a sort of "trickle down" approach. But for most workers, Lean training focuses on how to do the job, not why they need to do it differently. What's lacking is enterprise-wide motivational training.

Santech Industries Sees Results

Santech Industries has experienced the benefits that motivational exercises can bring to a Lean strategy. A Fort Worth-based manufacturer of engineered replacement parts for automotive air conditioning units, Santech Industries was transformed from a hierarchal management style into one consisting of self-supervised teams. In the process Santech has become a world leader in its field of business.

Prior to going Lean, Santech was suffering from engineering delays, product log jams, inventory control issues, materials handling problems, clutter and numerous other related difficulties. The inefficiencies weren't limited to the manufacturing side, either. Sales and marketing, engineering and executive offices have all since been reorganized and transformed.

Today the company employs Lean cellular work areas throughout the organization -- including office layouts -- which has led to better organization and easier access to equipment. By going Lean, Santech has realized a 60% increase in throughput over the old paradigm. Sales are up 8% and profits up 80%.

Simulations Deliver High Psychological Impact

For Santech, the most difficult aspect of going Lean was in structuring the company's now-standard self-supervised teams. To help differentiate the new self-supervised teams structure it was striving for from the old hierarchical style it wanted to change, Santech put everyone in the company through an exercise called LeanZone Production Methodologies from Visionary Products, Inc. Management held discussions before and after each simulation to reinforce that fact that this was a proven organizational model.

In the simulation, participants use interlocking plastic blocks to produce model airplanes. During phase one, participants build their planes using a traditional plant layout. In phases two and three, they redesign their work area into a cellular layout and learn to utilize one-piece workflow with a pull system. In the final phase, they experience the concepts of a flexible workforce and load leveling.

To gain improvement in its marketing, sales and administration functions Santech used LeanZone Office.This program puts seven participants to work in a fictional company where they learn to improve the quotation process.

Santech found that the motivational exercises had a tremendous psychological impact on employees. By providing a visual contrast of the old work processes and the new procedures, the exercises clearly demonstrated the benefits of change. Furthermore, employees quickly grasped an understanding of the individual roles they would play in the new organization.

Santech's experience demonstrates the inestimable value of winning over employees by involving them in the continuous improvement process toward a fully-realized Lean environment. The company learned that individuals were capable of contributing far more than Santech's original management system allowed, and that the teams concept could provide the company with a competitive advantage.

Managing Change

Employee motivation is certainly not the only challenge to Lean adoption, however, companies that want to achieve higher returns on their improvement programs need to incorporate such change management techniques into their adoption strategies, along with a plan for basic education of all employees in Lean fundamentals.

Studies show that the more aggressively companies adopt Lean strategies, the more success they enjoy. According to "The Lean Benchmark Report: Closing the Reality Gap," published in March 2006 by the Aberdeen Group: "Companies that have mastered Lean basics are meeting or exceeding shareholder expectations. According to our research, approximately 80% of best-in-class, 60% of industry average, and 40% of laggard companies are meeting, if not exceeding, expectations in key areas such as the reduction of inventory and assets, manufacturing and design cost reductions, improved manufacturing and supply chain flexibility, improved product quality, and improved customer service."

Of course, it's not feasible to turn every employee into a Kaizen black belt. But it is possible to smooth out the change process. All it takes is a little motivation.

Michael Deese is founder and CEO of Visionary Products, Inc., Based in Fort Worth, TX, Visionary Products' LeanZone simulations are designed to stimulate, educate and motivate employees to embrace organizational change and "lean" business practices.

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