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Lessons from the Road: Role Modeling for Change

June 3, 2014
Leaders help create a lean organization by practicing lean behaviors in a bright light, not out of view.

In my last two columns, I articulated the need for cultural change and outlined strategies to make it happen. One of the most important experiences we provide is being a role model. But what does that mean? Many people I coach believe that they inherently think and act lean. But does that make them a role model?

First, why is role modeling lean behaviors so vital? It is a form of teaching. For people that don't know what lean behaviors look like, role modeling becomes instructional. They see the example, and they "get it." It also provides credibility for the message of lean behaviors itself. If we espouse lean behaviors but do not demonstrate them, the lean message integrity is damaged.

How do we role model? It is too easy to believe that our words are the same thing as role modeling, but it is more about our presence, our actions and our decisions. As Mahatma Gandhi asserted, we must "be the change that you wish to see in the world." Make your example visible. Doing the right thing when no one is looking is important; doing the right thing when everyone is looking becomes an example to follow.      

Here are some examples of personal role modeling of lean behaviors.

High agreement of both what and how. In a word, this is about standardization. But as a behavior, it's not about having a standard, it's about valuing that standard. During one of our first courses, I had a plant manager ask, "Why can't I get my first-shift operator to work the same way my second-shift operator does?"

But my challenge back to her was whether she was consistent from one Monday to the next. It's easy to think that standardization applies to other people but not to ourselves, because we either believe it doesn't apply or that we are naturally "structured."

Tools such as Control Point Standardization work very well. As a method, it provides consistency over periods of time, provides transparency in management priorities and focus, and highlights issues early. But when carried and used, it also demonstrates that you believe in and practice standardization. Personally, I still use Control Point Standardization.

Direct observation. Some people call this going to the gemba, or go and see, but the behavior is being able to observe work as it occurs in its true form. You observe what actually happens, not what is supposed to happen. This is one of those behaviors that's all too easy to say that you do without actually having to demonstrate it.

At a BMW plant, after each daily quality meeting, time is reserved for direct observation. The time is reserved, but the topic and participants aren't determined until the meeting. The observation is focused on which problem appears to be the least well understood. The leader in the room participates in the observation and often makes the decision about what observation needs to be done. Because everyone has reserved the time on their schedule, there are no excuses for not doing it immediately.

Create a learning organization. Everyone knows about PDCA: Plan-Do-Check-Act. But of course it's done in their heads, out of view of those we want to learn from the example. So how do we create this example? The easiest way is to declare our hypothesis publicly, in advance of an experiment. We demonstrate that we're actually studying a process well enough to attempt a prediction. And you'll be wrong, and that's OK. Experimentation is about learning, not being right.

Systematic waste elimination. To make waste elimination work, there must be a mechanism for people to document and share their waste-elimination ideas and actions. One of the most valuable role modeling actions a leader can take is to utilize those same mechanisms that everyone else does. If there is a process for eliminating waste, then it should be the process for everyone.

Role modeling does not count if no one sees you do it.

Contributing Editor Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and a co-author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road."

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