McKinsey on Lean: understanding the people role

In an article titled From Lean to Lasting: Making Operational Improvements Stick McKinsey bemoans the companies that focus on the lean tools without understanding the people side.

For companies seeking large-scale operational improvements, all roads lead to Toyota.

Each year, thousands of executives tour its facilities to learn how lean production—the operational and organizational innovations the automaker pioneered—might help their own companies. During the past 20 years, lean has become, along with Six Sigma, one of two kinds of prominent performance-improvement programs adopted by global manufacturing and, more recently, service companies. Recently, organizations as diverse as steelmakers, insurance companies, and public-sector agencies have benefited from “leaning” their operations with Toyota’s now-classic approach: eliminating waste, variability, and inflexibility.


But what is often missing?

Yet in our experience, organizations overlook up to half of the potential savings when they implement or expand operational-improvement programs inspired by lean, Six Sigma, or both.
Some companies set their sights too low; others falter by implementing lean and other performance-enhancing tools without recognizing how existing performance-management systems or employee mind-sets might undermine them. Still others underestimate the level of senior-management involvement required; for example, they delegate responsibility for change programs to their lean experts or Six Sigma black belts—practitioners who are technically skilled but often lack the authority, capabilities, or numbers to make change stick.


What is going on?

The broader challenge underlying such problems is integrating the better-known “hard” operational tools and approaches—such as just-in-time production—with the “soft” side, including the development of leaders who can help teams to continuously identify and make efficiency improvements, link and align the boardroom with the shop floor, and build the technical and interpersonal skills that make efficiency benefits real. Mastering lean’s softer side is difficult because it forces all employees to commit themselves to new ways of thinking and working. Toyota remains the exemplar: while many companies can replicate its lean technology, success on the softer side often eludes them.

What can be done?
Top companies, by contrast, attend to the softer elements of an initiative throughout its whole course, starting with the earliest, aspiration-setting phases, when senior leaders identify the key goals and start to communicate them. That helps companies to establish a stronger foundation for change and to set more achievable, and often much higher, ambitions than they otherwise could. A better understanding of the cultural starting point enables top companies to determine where they should focus at the beginning of a program, when to implement its various elements, and how to achieve their goals.

The authors then identify several “soft” qualities of lean leaders.

1. A focus on operating processes – going to the gemba.
2. Root cause problem solving.
3. Clear performance expectations.
4. Aligned leadership.
5. A sense of purpose.
6. Support for people.

Bingo. If I was to find any fault with this article it would be the concept subtly promoted that the soft side, the people side, isn’t truly part of lean. And “support for people” involves far more than simply enabling people. It also includes valuing the knowledge, creativity, ideas, and experience of those brains.

Source: evolving excellence

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One thought on “McKinsey on Lean: understanding the people role

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