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How Many Times Has Your Company Started (and Stopped) Implementing Lean?

May 24, 2016
Since it is a given that culture and leaders are constantly changing, your company might be experiencing a successful lean and Six Sigma improvement effort that all of a sudden comes to a crashing halt.

Most people would agree that the right culture and leadership are imperative to having a successful, sustainable improvement effort. However, culture and leadership are not static. They are constantly in flux, which means that if you are currently working in a terrible culture under managers who use fear and threats to get things done, there is hope that things will change for the better. For example, one company I worked with had such a divisive culture, a stack of grievances were written by the employees every week. Two years later, after much focus and change (training for all employees, reorganizing the departments to become more process focused, changing metrics, use of teams, etc.), this same company had only one grievance written for the entire year.

Of course, what can get better, can also get worse… in some cases, much worse. Since it is a given that culture and leaders are constantly changing, your company might be experiencing a successful lean and Six Sigma improvement effort that all of a sudden comes to a crashing halt. How and why does this occur? And can anything be done to stop this from happening? Let’s begin with the following example:

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! The irritating sound of the alarm clock was invading Julie’s peaceful sleep.

“Augggg. That stupid alarm,” she thought as she searched for the source of the aggravating noise. “Have I hit the snooze button twice or has it been three times?” she wondered.

“I thought I heard the alarm, and I brought you a hot cup of coffee,” said Jim as he entered their bedroom.

“We have been married for almost two years, and you know I don’t function well until at least three snooze hits,” scolded Julie. “My goal is to avoid getting up for as long as possible so I can put off thinking about going to work for as long as possible.”

“I wish that you didn’t hate your job so much,” said her husband as he set the cup of coffee on the nightstand. “We were thinking this was going to be your dream job. I mean, you always wanted to be a quality engineer for a major company.”

“Yeah… I guess,” said Julie. “It sure isn’t what I expected. All I do each day is argue with the production people on what parts can be used and which ones have to be quarantined. And when I am not playing traffic cop on the shop floor, I am in my office lying to our customers. ‘Sure, we will get right on that problem, ma’am…’ ‘We will do a full root cause analysis, sir…’ Blah, Blah, Blah. Of course, we are too busy fighting fires for any of that to actually happen.”

“Didn’t you say you were getting a new V.P. of operations? Maybe that will change things,” said Jim.

“I doubt it. Seems like management honchos are all cut from the same cloth. They are too worried about their own political status in the company to care about the rest of us.” Julie looked at the clock. “Oooh, I still have seven minutes before I risk being late for work.” With that said, she rolled over and buried her head into the pillow and drifted back to sleep.

Later that day, Julie was on the shop floor arguing with one of the production supervisors about a bin of quarantined parts. “No, you cannot use these parts until they have been sorted and reworked.”

“But, you let us use similar parts with this same issue just last week,” said the supervisor.

“That was because it was a super-hot job, and the customer had to have their order that day. Look, if this job becomes super-hot, give me a call and we can try to work something out. Otherwise, these parts are not to be touched!”

“Well, this is going to cause my production line to go down, which will impact my employee utilization score and it will all be on your head,” said the supervisor as he walked away.

“Hey Julie,” said Doug, one of the manufacturing engineers, as he walked up. “Did you get the notice of the ‘all employee’ meeting scheduled for this afternoon. The new V.P. of operations wants to say a few words.”

“Wow, we have not had a meeting with upper management since I got here almost two years ago. Isn’t he going to worry about shutting the production lines down?”

“I guess whatever he has to say is more important,” said Doug. They talked a few more minutes when, all of the sudden, Julie noticed something out of the corner of her eye.

“What the… Where are those parts I just quarantined?!?” She found the supervisor who she had spoken to just five minutes earlier. “Where are the parts I told you not to use?”

“You said that if the job got super-hot that we could use the parts, and the job got super-hot.”

“I said to call me and I was standing just a few feet away! I can’t believe this!” she said with disgust as she stormed off.

Like Using Defective Parts!

A call with an angry customer made Julie a few minutes late to the all employee meeting later that afternoon. She slipped into the back of the room and found a chair on the back row. She was still steamed about how the day had gone.

“Things need to change pretty dramatically around here,” said the new V.P. of operations. “In my short time with the company, it is apparent that we have lost focus on meeting our customers' needs. We sell a premium product and they do not want late deliveries, quality problems, and they don’t want to wait weeks for their delivery.”

“Ha! That is putting things mildly!” Julie fumed under her breath.

“So, we are going to focus on improving our processes. One of the first steps to improvement is to admit that we have problems. Can someone share with this group a problem we are currently experiencing?”

“LIKE USING DEFECTIVE PARTS!” shouted Julie. The audience gasped.

“Who said that?” asked the new operations leader. Over 200 fingers pointed at Julie. She stood and sheepishly introduced herself, and explained that she was one of the quality engineers in the plant.

“Thank you. That was a brave thing you just did. After the meeting, I would like to talk to you about joining our first improvement team. We need more employees like Julie who care about our customers. Now, can anyone else share a problem we are experiencing?” Almost immediately, 200 hands went up.

Two Years Later

“Hey Julie,” said Doug as they both left the latest process improvement team session. “Wasn’t that a fantastic meeting? We are making huge strides in improving our processes. I actually went an entire day without a single fire popping up.”

“Yeah,” said Julie. “These past couple of years have been fantastic. Our first-pass quality yield is the highest it has ever been, and we are able to get orders out in days instead of weeks. The company leaders must be pleased also. Our productivity numbers are through the roof.”

Doug glanced at Julie’s baby bump. “The baby’s due date is coming up pretty quickly. I bet you are going to miss this place when you are on maternity leave.”

Julie let out a long sigh. “Just when things are getting fun around here, I have to take some time off. Just make sure that things stay on track while I am gone. Woah… I think I just felt a contraction. The baby may be coming sooner that we thought.”

After a difficult delivery and some minor health concerns, Julie was unable to return to work for over a year. She loved her time at home, but was also looking forward to rejoining her teammates at work and getting back to making things better for the company, the customers and the employees. On her first day back, she got up extra early and could not help but smile as she got everything ready before heading out to work. As she walked into the office, she ran into her friend Doug. He did not look good.

“Doug! Hey, I am back! I can’t wait to meet with our improvement team and see how things have progressed.”

“Uhhhh…. Well, I am not sure how to tell you this,” stammered Doug. “Things have changed since you have been gone and not for the better. The V.P. of operations left the company a while back. I think he ended up getting a nice promotion with an even larger company. Then a new V.P. came in and told us how impressed he was with our improvement efforts. He said it was now part of our culture and our way of doing things every day. So, he said we no longer needed the improvement teams or employee communication meetings or to do any more training or benchmarking. It was amazing how fast things deteriorated. In fact, our customer metrics are worse than ever.”

“NOOOO!” said Julie. “You mean we are back to using defective parts and hiding our problems?” Doug nodded his head in the affirmative. As the days went by, Julie confirmed Doug’s observations.

A Few Weeks Later

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! The alarm screamed its irritating sound.

“Uggg. Where is the snooze button?” thought Julie.

“Aren’t you going to get up?” said her husband as he was getting dressed.

“Why bother? Things are much worse than they ever were before at work. You know something? I think it would have been better on everyone if we had not tried to improve anything. It is tough to experience the way things could be and then have the rug pulled out from under you. It just reinforces the misery.” With that, Julie rolled over and went back to sleep.

4 Stages of Competency

4 Stages of Competency (Adopted from the Four Stages of Learning):

Stage 1: Unconsciously Incompetent

Stage 2: Consciously Incompetent

Stage 3: Consciously Competent

Stage 4: Unconsciously Competent

A little over 25 years ago, I learned about the four stages of competency, and it helped shape the way I think about how companies progress in their improvement efforts. Organizations routinely go through these four stages, and understanding what they are will help explain why improvement efforts begin and end so frequently.

Stage 1: Unconsciously Incompetent – “You don’t know what you don’t know” is a common expression and sums up stage 1 pretty well. Characteristics of this stage include fear, finger pointing and back stabbing others. The ship is sinking and management does not know (or wants to know) that there is a problem. So issues are hidden and ignored until one of two things happens -- either the company moves to Stage 2 or eventually goes out of business.

Stage 2: Consciously Incompetent – This stage is actually the first step to making improvement happen. When the company leaders are willing to admit that there are problems and things need to change, then an opportunity opens to implementing lean, Six Sigma, and continuous improvement. It is similar to the first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program: admitting that you are an alcoholic. After going through one of my training courses, a business president asked his staff to repeat after him: “We are consciously incompetent! Now, what are we going to do about it?”

Stage 3: Consciously Competent – Things are really humming in Stage 3, and there are definitive data to show that improvement is happening. Employees are more involved than they ever have been before, decisions are made real time by the people closest to the process, morale is at all-time highs, and people are genuinely glad to be at work. I have had the opportunity to work with several great companies and help them get to this stage, and the rewards are extremely satisfying. It is quite the experience to see an entire plant of people applauding when they meet and exceed all of their customers’ expectations each day.

Stage 4: Unconsciously Competent – A company can be in Stage 3 for so long that it becomes second nature… part of the culture… “It is who we are!” They then run the risk of slipping into Stage 4. Some might think that Stage 4 is the pinnacle of an improvement effort where everyone does their job and improvement just happens naturally. However, consider for a moment which other stage this parallels. If the company leaders think that there is no longer any reason to do the improvement teams, training, start-up meetings, etc., because improvement is now part of everyone’s job, then there is a risk that everything can come crashing down and you end up back at Stage 1 (and may not even know it until it is too late). What I find fascinating is how quickly this can happen. In one large company, they had a business that consistently performed better than all of the other businesses by a significant margin. A new leader came on board and explained that he was halting all teams, quality days and start-up meetings because they were unnecessary since improvement was part of the culture. Within about nine months, this business went from being one of the best to one of the worse. About a year later, it was sold, and the buying company kept the assets and shut everything else down.

How to Get Off the Roller Coaster

How does a company avoid slipping back to Stage 1 and starting all over? We often talk about how important upper management is to a successful improvement effort. Who in the company hires the highest executives? In a privately held company, it is the owner or private equity firm. In a public company, the board of directors makes these decisions. How much knowledge do these groups have about the improvement culture that is being built? Will they hire a new CEO who “gets it”? One who will fit into the new culture and help grow and expand the efforts? Or, will they hire someone who might tear down the entire initiative either because it does not fit their leadership style or they are afraid the previous leader will get all of the credit? If it is the latter, don’t be surprised at how often your improvement efforts stall and require starting all over again.

So, to avoid the start/stop/start pattern of implementing improvement, first, recognize the destructiveness of slipping into Stage 4 – Unconsciously Competent behavior. In the book “Good to Great,” the author Jim Collins says that good is the enemy of great. If your organization starts to think that it is good enough, then don’t be surprised when you find yourself in Stage 4 (and ultimately back at Stage 1).

Also, take every opportunity to share with upper management the good progress your improvement efforts have made but also how much more there is to do. Remember, the whole idea of continuous improvement is to never stop. Finally, don’t forget the ultimate decision makers, the owners and/or board of directors. If the occasion presents itself, share with them the importance of having the right culture and leadership in place so future executives will continue to help achieve the pursuit of greatness.

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