One of the many upsides of being on vacation is that one can take a bit of a distance from current work, reflect and look at issues from a further and perhaps more theoretical point of view. With a bit of luck, one can do this in some non-conventional and possibly more pleasant surroundings than a normal office environment.
This is how, this week, I spent a lot of time immersed in the nicely cool waters of the Danube thinking about discussions, tensions and possible strategies related to one of our customers for a large scale lean implementation in several countries. The relaxed atmosphere or the cool water or maybe both somehow made me come up with something I would now call the fundamental law of organizational behavior (pompous, I know).
The law could be enounced in the following way : over medium or long term members of an organization will behave in the way which is the easiest for them. I know it does not seem like a big discovery but it does have some nice consequences for any process improvement we try to do . (Also, as a disclaimer: I am pretty sure I am not the first to discover this, my only claim is that I discovered it independently from others ).
If you ever read forums of people involved in process improvements (Lean or Six Sigma or other) the recurrent theme in all of them is the complaint about the lack of management support. Innumerable times did we all say that this or that initiative would have succeeded if only management (especially middle management) supported us better. Now, with the Law this problem is suddenly much clearer. People will behave in a way that is the easiest for them. In many cases our process improvements are not designed to make life easier for the process workers – it is designed to make the process maybe more efficient, less costly and so on, but not easier. So, in accordance with the Law we need middle management to supervise the new process and make sure that not respecting it will make life definitely harder for those involved in the process.
Let us take 5S as an example: from the POV of a factory worker maintaining order and cleanliness for the sake of an abstract 5S process defined at headquarters is definitely NOT on top of their priorities. So, we expect middle management to regularly inspect the premises and to make enough fuss about it that it will be easier to adhere to the process then not to.
But the Law applies to the middle management as well – and not creating unnecessary conflicts with the work-force over secondary topics (after all, production targets are the important ones) definitely makes THEIR life easier. And so , the Lean implementor is left with the ruins of a 5S initiative and the complaint about the lack of management support. “If only they would have followed through with the 5S audits – we could have been sooo successful”.
I just picked 5S as the most frequently occurring debacle but the same reasoning applies to SMED initiatives, team boards, regular lean meetings or any other improvement we might think of. The Law will simply say – if it does not visibly make life easier for the involved people the initiative will die.
So, sitting in the cool (and blue) Danube – obviously the next question will be what we can do about this? Is there a way to make an initiative sustainable?
I think the answer is in the methodology developed by Mike Rother in his Toyota Kata books. He very boldly states that the objective of Lean initiatives should not be the implementation of any combination of Lean tools . What we should aim for is to teach a way of thinking about problems and continuously solve them. The vehicle for this will be the definition of a target condition – a state of the process we want to achieve, and a method of continuously building our way towards this target, together with all involved process workers and managers. (This is the time-honored PDCA by the way.) There are many possible target conditions that can be defined but once we have consensus on our target we have the method and the way of thinking to guarantee (which is a big word here) that we will with time get ever closer to it.
Now, to bring the Law of Organizational Behavior to act in our favor, all we have to do is to define the target condition PRIMARILY as a process that is easier for the involved people then the process we started with. This thought has been hidden in the original ideas of the Lean pioneers – the concepts of Mura and Muri are very much in this direction or I could also cite Taichi Ono here “Why not make the work easier and more interesting so that people do not have to sweat? The Toyota style is not to create results by working hard. It is a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity. People don’t go to Toyota to ‚work‘ they go there to ‚think’.”
However, by selling Lean we were so focused on measurable process improvement – percent setup time reduction, lead time reduction, OEE improvement etc. that we neglected this part of the equation.
Do I mean that we should turn Lean into a feelgood initiative with no regard to hard-core benefits? Definitely not – if we do not improve the processes in a quantifiable way then we have no justification for even being present in an organization. Instead I am arguing the other side of the coin – we definitely should aim for those improvements but we have to be fully aware that unless we make the process also easier for the process workers all our improvements will be ephemeral illusions.
So, to come back to our 5S example- how could we make the improvement stick? I would say, we should start by identifying the process worker’s needs – what do they need to make their life easier, less stressful, even more pleasant? Lost, eventually stolen tools ? Explain the concept of shadow boards. Broken window on the shop floor? Fix it as the first step of the new 5S implementation and define a process so that the next time nobody has to wait for month before a window is fixed. Gloves missing? Buy some and define a process (Kanban for instance) to make ordering new gloves immediate. It is stressy to have a big boss come to a 5S inspection every month? Introduce self-audits and coach the boss to only audit the audits – you get the idea.
This way it is possible to turn an initiative that people see as an additional burden into something they will all be proud of. And when you get a delegation from a different machine asking management for the introduction of 5S in their place as well, you will know that you succeeded and that the Law is now on your side. And after all, this is all we need to make the initiative a success.