From Lean to Lasting: Making Operational Improvements Stick

Artist: Natasha Law
Artist: Natasha Law

Post found at  http://www.bnet.com/2403-13056_23-261760.html Post is included here because it adresses the approach in operations. As often stated: operations are mostly about people and not about processes or technology.

By focusing on the “soft” side of lean and Six Sigma initiatives, leading global companies gain substantial, scalable, and sustainable advantages.

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.

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.

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.

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Some companies, however, overcome the challenges and get more from their operational-improvement programs. Against a backdrop of growing economic uncertainty, their success can be a source of inspiration and enlightenment for industrial and service companies and for public- and social-sector organizations looking to extract greater value from these efforts.

Soft is hard

Making operational change stick is difficult. Operations typically account for the largest number of a company’s employees and the widest variation in skill levels. Units often are scattered across dozens or even hundreds of sites throughout the world, function independently, and have distinct corporate cultures—particularly if M&A has fueled a company’s growth. Each facility may specialize in different products or services and face unique pressures from customers, competitors, and regulators. These factors complicate efforts to design, execute, and scale operational-improvement programs (see sidebar “A better approach to scaling”).

Consequently, many companies emphasize the technical aspects of their programs over the organizational ones. That approach is understandable. Technical solutions are objective and straightforward; analytical solutions to operational problems abound in lean and Six Sigma tool kits; and companies make significant investments to train experts who know how to apply them. What’s more, the tools and experts actually are invaluable in diagnosing and improving operational performance.

Consequently, many companies emphasize the technical aspects of their programs over the organizational ones. That approach is understandable. Technical solutions are objective and straightforward; analytical solutions to operational problems abound in lean and Six Sigma tool kits; and companies make significant investments to train experts who know how to apply them. What’s more, the tools and experts actually are invaluable in diagnosing and improving operational performance.

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Artist: Natasha Law
Artist: Natasha Law