Even though this endeavor you have been working on to build a continuous improvement culture is commonly called a “Lean journey”, the name is not entirely accurate. A journey implies an end. It is more like an adventure or an exploration. Regardless of what you call it, though, if you are successful at it you will eventually uncover the great paradox of creating a business management system that drives a continuous improvement culture. By definition, you can never finish building your system. Because it is so focused on continuous improvement, the structure will not just uncover opportunities with your production and support processes. It will identify ways to improve itself.
That is the key characteristic of this phase. The journey becomes self-powered. While there are still lessons and development gates in this phase, there is a noticeable change in the feel of the system. It no longer takes in more energy than it puts off. Going back to the analogy of the investment property from earlier, this phase is the equivalent of when the rent outpaces the costs of ownership. The rental unit becomes profitable. This phase is marked by a significant reduction in the effort it takes to roll out new ideas and a major increase in the system’s payoff.
Once your company reaches this phase, the majority of your organizations will be operating under the business management system, and will have a full kaizen calendar. Employees will be able to transfer throughout the company and immediately understand how the new department is run. The fact that everyone is involved, though, does not mean that you can coast on your previous efforts. It is very important to keep up the momentum.
The bottom line is that this is not exactly a steady state phase, as the improvement line should still be steep. It is more of the saturation phase where everyone is involved in Lean, and the focus is on continually strengthening the culture.
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Detailed Volume Information
The purpose of this phase is to create the feel that a state of constant change is normal and manageable. In the previous phases, the changes were focused on changing not only the way people work, but also the way they think about work. For that matter, they were intended to change the way people think in general.
This phase is intended to protect that new reality so there is no backsliding.
As mentioned in the previous phase summary, there is not really a clear line of demarcation between phases 3 and 4 like there was in earlier ones. It is a gradual shift in attitude. It is further complicated by the fact that everyone in the organization will not transition all at once. Some groups will still be ramping up while others are fully committed to their improvement efforts. As long as there is still forward progress, though, eventually you’ll find the company firmly in this phase.
Phase 4, for most companies, is as far as they will proceed. It takes a tremendous set of leaders, and fully committed, engaged workers to be recognizable as world class. Think of a bell curve. Most companies will end up near the median. Only a rare few will find their way to the long tail.
Take heart, though. The bell curve is not a representation of the entire population of companies at large. Think of it like a subset of professional athletes. If you are an average player on the PGA (golfing) tour, you are far better than the average duffer. And even if you never succeed in becoming world class, there is tremendous value in the pursuit of world class performance. The more you move to the right of that curve, the greater the separation between the performance of your company and its competitors.
Once you have mastered the sections of this volume, feel free to begin working on those in the world class phase. Phase 5 is unique in that respect. For the other phases, when you successfully complete the training and development gates, there is a natural progression into the subsequent volume of this program. With phase 5, though, the boundary is much more performance based. It dependent upon you fully integrating the lessons of this program and then going beyond what it offers.
Indefinite. For most companies that don’t abandon their focus on continuous improvement, phase 4, Keeping Momentum, will be their final destination. That doesn’t mean the program is done when you start the phase, though. There are still a substantial number of sections in this volume that you will have to work through.
The character of this phase, however, is different. In the earlier phases, much of your continuous improvement effort was on learning new concepts and building the essential structure. In this phase, the structure you will need for improvement is, for the most part, complete. Your improvement activity will be, to a much greater extent, spent on actually improving processes. That extends the timeline on working through phase 4 sections.
While the overall timeline for this phase is listed as ‘indefinite’, we don’t recommend dilly-dallying to get through the sections. Plan on working through phase 4 sections in 12-18 months.
Build in Quality: There is a common misconception that inspections are an indicator of a good quality program. The truth is that inspections require that you understand the failure modes and know what to look for. A better way is to go after each item you inspect for and find a way to keep the error from happening at the source.
Adopt a Zero Defects Mentality: There is an old story about a company that sourced a component from a Lean oriented supplier in Japan, and insisted that the vendor met a 2% failure rate target. The Japanese company balked and resisted that rate, but the purchaser insisted. Finally the Lean company relented and agreed to the 2% target. When the first order of 100 components arrived, there were 98 in the box, and 2 separated with a note saying, “Here are the two bad components you wanted. We still don’t understand why you need them.” The point of the story is that one company lived by a zero defects mentality and the other followed the traditional path of assuming that there would always be some failure rate. Now, in truth, no process is perfect. But the pursuit of perfection gets you a lot closer to zero defects than accepting that a portion of your work will always be shoddy.
Strengthen Your Systems: The more you think in terms of systems, the more effective your company will be. Don’t just focus on drawing up Standard Work. Look at the entire work management system. Knowing how you will train people, and even hire people, can drive the way you document and structure your work. Thinking in small chunks can make processes extremely efficient…locally. But sometimes local efficiencies hurt the big picture. And once you start thinking in terms of systems, your work is not done. You have to continually improve those systems.
Build Full Engagement: You may have gotten to phase 4 on the backs of strong leaders and a handful of motivated individuals. But your company will not thrive once you arrive here unless you get everyone bought in. The ‘full’ in this principle actually has two meanings. The first is that you need everyone to be engaged. Every person who is resistant is like an obstacle that disrupts your culture. The ‘full’ also means the level of engagement of each of those individuals. Being OK with the change is not enough. They need to embrace the culture and be able to act in the absence of specific guidance. This is a unique principle in that it is both the cause and the result of success. The more engaged a team is, the more likely the team is to be successful. The more successful a team is, the more likely they are to be engaged. Note that this reinforcement cycle also works in reverse.
Monitor Performance: If you don’t track how things are going, getting better harder than it should be. Can you improve if you don’t track things? Sometimes. The problem, though, is that some problems are subtle and sap resources without you even knowing it. Others are noticeable, but are hard to compare with each other for prioritization purposes. And still others are obviously problems, but are hard to pinpoint the exact nature and magnitude of the problem. There’s an old adage, “What gets measured, gets done.” With a strong business system, that’s not entirely true. Much of what your team does is on faith in the system. But measuring certainly highlights issues and helps dramatically improve the improvement process.
By the time your organization is in this phase, “Keeping Momentum”, the implication is that you already have attained momentum. Organizational inertia is hard to overcome. At this point, it would take a while to undo all of the changes you have made. It is easier to keep going forward than it is to actively try to go back.
The risk really comes from entropy. There is a tendency, if a leadership vacuum develops, for little things to start slipping. If that continues, over time, the business management system will fail. But the risk of that happening is relatively low, as senior managers, by this time, will be embracing operations reviews and policy deployment. When they see an issue start to develop, they will want to see a plan on how to manage it. The system, by design, protects itself.