Mar 19 2013

Many of us will have heard the expression “that’s like turkeys voting for Christmas”. It just isn’t going to happen. And yet many organisations expect exactly that when they embark on their “lean journey”. Although there are many organisations who understand the fact that Lean is as much or more about creating a culture of continuous improvement through the engagement & development of people, there are still some who believe it is a great tool for enabling redundancies & “rightsizing” as it is often called. The problem, although obvious to many, is that as soon as people realise that the intentions behind the “project” or initiative is to release capacity to enable people to be released, then the people will no longer buy in (if they do in the first place). Without the buy in, any gains will be quickly lost or at best maintained and the true potential of Lean will not be recognised.

Lean can deliver quick, bottom line results, however if those results are realised through a reduction in headcount, then the longer term benefits will most likely be non-existent. Why would anyone want to reduce their workload to enable the company to reduce the workforce which of course may include their own job. The intention or purpose behind the capacity increases delivered through Lean is to enable more sales and in turn a greater volume of work to be completed by the same level of inputs.

Sadly, there are plenty of consultancies & companies that are more interested in the next quarter’s results than the longevity of those results and the potential to continue to deliver ever increasing/improving performance through negligible outlay due to a workforce that continually works towards improving the results. Deming provided a set of principles to managers to transform business effectiveness in which he suggests companies should “create constancy of purpose…aim to become competitive, stay in business and to provide jobs” (#1) and to “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company” (#8). Toyota followed suite with their principles as discussed in The Toyota Way which begin with “managing with a long-view rather than for short-term gain” (#1). The effectiveness of Lean as based on the Toyota Production System means that these principles need to be followed.

Ignoring the first principle in both sets in effect indicates that those who follow this path are not really embarking on a Lean journey, but attempting to reduce costs by employing a tool that has been seen to reduce costs in other organisations. Similar to what Spears & Bowen discuss in their HBR article Decoding the DNA of Toyota where companies confuse the tools & practices with the system itself. They think that introducing a few tools to reduce costs will deliver the same results Toyota & the other successful Lean organisations have achieved.

I’ve seen this in many organisations, you may have as well. Ignoring one aspect of a Lean system is not much different than ignoring one aspect of the driving system. Imagine if those entering a roundabout decided to ignore the rule to give way to those already in the roundabout or those to their right (in the UK anyway). Systems by their nature generally require all elements to be effective, Lean is no different. Ignoring the respect for people aspect, the idea that the people must be engaged to deliver the long term results is akin to expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas, it just isn’t going to deliver the results you are looking for, unless of course you are hoping to stop celebrating Christmas!


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