What Does it Mean to be Lean?

A friend of mine recently took a new job at an organization that emphasized its practice and company culture of lean during the interview process. My friend was very excited about this opportunity because I have shared with them about the work I do and how different it is working for an organization that strives for organizational excellence. A few weeks after starting their new role, my friend began confiding in me about their disappointment with the organization and their experiences at work. I couldn’t help thinking; first that I am grateful to work where I do, and second, how could an organization be getting lean so “wrong?”

Here are some things that lean, or continuous improvement, organizations do consistently.

Create a Safe Space

In a continuous improvement organization safety is top priority. This means that they look out for the safety of staff and all who are in their facilities. It also means that they make it safe for someone to speak up about any incident that might be unsafe or when a problem has occurred. Organizations who take safety seriously make sure that all their staff knows how to escalate a safety concern.

At the organization my friend was working for, safety seemed to be something they appeared to be concerned about, but their actions didn’t align with this when it came down to bringing up issues and making changes. They often ignored employee complaints about ergonomic issues that were causing injury. When dangerous situations occurred, like forklift drivers not operating safely, there was no way for my friend to escalate this concern because the forklift driver was the 3rd shift lead. From the stories I heard, nobody felt safe in that environment.

Strive for Improvement

In a continuous improvement culture, you will often see evidence that everyone is striving for improvement. One of the ways this is observed is through seeking input from those on the front line or those that are impacted by a process. Often improvements are linked to a management system in the form of a daily huddle or a stat sheet. No matter the means, organizations that are serious about improving create channels to funnel improvement ideas and time to work on them.

My friend’s organization did not have any defined process for improvement ideas or surfacing problems. Instead they had the infamous suggestion box nailed to a wall outside of a managers office. Based on what my friend knew from other employees, this box was never opened; or if it was nothing ever came from those ideas.

Encourage Teamwork

Constancy of purpose is important in a continuous improvement culture. When staff at all levels understand the goals of the organization and how their work contributes, it fosters teamwork. When employees have constancy of purpose they are more likely to put the good of the organization ahead of making a task easier for them.

My friend explained that the environment of this organization fostered a  sense of competition between the staff members. People were hyper focused on who was producing the most widgets, who seemed like they were working the hardest or slacking off, and how they could one-up other staff so they could look better. This is a recipe for a disastrous work culture. In a healthy work environment the team would be focused on how many widgets they needed to produce during a set time and how they could use the strengths of each employee to achieve or surpass that target.

Utilize Standard Work

Documented standard work is necessary for improvement because it details the best-known way of doing a task. When all staff are performing a task in the same way it is easier to address problems when they occur and makes preventing them easier as well. Standard work should not only be used in problem-solving, but also to train new employees.

My friend’s new organization didn’t seem to have standard work at all. My friend shared that he was trained by many different people and each person had their own way of doing things. He never saw any process documented on paper, so if he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do next there was no place for him to reference.

It is important to acknowledge that this organization may be just starting out on an improvement journey, yet there does not seem to be any evidence this organization is actively pursuing continuous improvement on the front line. Maybe their leadership is not going out to gemba, so they are unaware. Or perhaps there is a big difference in operations between shifts. Whatever the cause of the discrepancy, I sincerely hope that they can address it and start changing their culture.

Of course, a lean journey is about much more than what is listed here. What does being a lean organization mean to you? What would you do if you heard about any of these kinds of issues occurring in your organization? Please share in the comments section below.


Related Items

Lean  Healthcare Transformation Summit

Principles and Behaviors of Organizational Excellence virtual workshop or Catalysis Academy course

Organizational Subscription to Catalysis Academy

Catalysis Healthcare Value Network

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