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How do I prepare to start my company on its Lean journey?

I’m an executive. How do I prepare to start my company on its Lean journey?

While every Lean journey takes a slightly different path, there are some basic phases that every company progresses through. (You can learn more in our Continuous Improvement Transformation Model.) Unfortunately, though, there is no standard path to take as you advance through those phases. Every company has slightly different needs. Their economic situations, skills of their workforce, problems, and a host of other factors play a role in determining the exact path you will eventually take.

But regardless of the actual course you choose to take, the first step should be to create a commitment to becoming an improvement-oriented organization. This is not only in your team. It is also in yourself.

As an executive, there are some things to do and consider as you commit to this path.

  • Learn. Don’t go in blind. Spend some significant time studying up on what Lean is, and what it will entail. Obviously, you’ll want to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to build a continuous improvement culture. (Our complete DVD pack and our Lean PDF library are good tools to learn more.)
  • Practice. See what it is like being on the Lean path. Use countermeasures to go after problems. Get a KPI board up on the wall where everyone can see how your team is doing. Put standard processes in place for your own work, and 5S your office. You’ll get a greater understanding of what your team will go through in later phases. Plus, you’ll quickly find out if you will be able to commit to a continuous improvement culture.
  • Clear Your Calendar. Recognize that you are in for a long, hard journey. Lean is effective, but it is not easy. In the later stages, you’ll be freed up to focus on strategic issues. In the early stages, though, it is a lot of work for an executive. Most are already swamped, so it can be overwhelming, especially if your team is resistant.
  • Break Out the Checkbook. Lean is a great improvement tool, but it is not free. You’ll need to spend on resources, training materials, and in some cases, hiring more people. While it is counterintuitive, there is an initial increase in workload with a continuous improvement effort. You won’t yet have improved processes, but you’ll need time to fix them. If you have a growth plan, consider hiring some people early. If not, find a good temp agency to bring in help during the initial burst of activity.
  • Prepare for Personnel Changes. You will probably end the journey with a much different group of managers than you have now. Like team members, some will opt out of the journey, and will find employment elsewhere. Others, though, will stay and resist the change. You’ll face the tough choice of having to move them aside or even out. It doesn’t happen often, but with any sizeable company, there will be a few that just won’t get on board. Be prepared for some turnover in your leadership team.
  • Build Consensus with Your Peers. Unless you are the top executive, you’ll have to build consensus. Lean thrives when it touches all parts of the organization. This is where you’ll have the least control initially. If you show big gains, your boss will likely help with the consensus building, but that is a bigger ‘if’ when your peer group is not on board. Make it easy for them. Organize benchmarking visits. Share your research. Focus on the problems they have with your team. The more support you get from around the company, the better off you’ll be.
  • Build Trust. Don’t stun your team with changes. Let them know along the way what is going on, and what you are looking into. There is a fine balance here. A heads up without details can be disturbing to teams. But hearing about changes after everything is locked in is equally problematic. One approach it to bring in a cross-functional group to help chart the course. Team members will feel better if they know one of their own is involved in the planning.
  • Find a Mentor. You are not Taiichi Ohno, blazing a trail. You’ve got a lot of support available in the form of experienced people who can guide you. If you are budget conscious, find someone on LinkedIn or a fellow alumni who can provide some coaching and support. If you have more significant needs than the occasional mentoring session, find a professional guide. We offer remote consulting services which provide a great way to bounce your decisions off someone, and get a few ideas that you may not have considered.


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