• October 14, 2022
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This article is a section from the upcoming book by Calvin L Williams titled F.I.T. – Agile Strategy Execution for Unstoppable Growth

The mighty Mississippi River. A powerful and continuous flow of water that stretches from North to South in the Unites States of America, virtually splitting the country in two. The river never stops, bringing a fresh source of food, trade, means of transportation, and economic prosperity to all the land it touches. Great cities like St Paul, St Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans exist because of the river. The river is not there because of them, these cities were able to develop and thrive because of the river. The river represents Kaizen, which can be loosely translated from Japanese to English as Continuous Improvement. Taken a step further, it can be described as continuous self-improvement for the greater good of the community.

World-renowned Continuous Improvement consultant and author of the book, Gemba Kaizen, Masaaki Imai mentions that the purpose of kaizen is Continuous Improvement, everybody, every day, everywhere. Can you image the kind of management system and culture that would be required to facilitate everybody, every day, everywhere, continuously improving the business? At a time when many companies simply hire a Lean Manager and expect a single-handed transformation, the idea that you’ll engage the hearts and minds of 100% of the people 100% of the time is profound. The sheer scale of change is incomprehensible. The momentum of improvement could become a runaway train. Perhaps this analogy strikes you as a great thing; perhaps it sounds terrifying. However, I would argue that it depends on how you leverage it. Just like rivers can destroy towns, it can also build great cities, given leadership and direction.

Impruver - Masaaki Imai - Everyone Everyday Everywhere

I was once that plant Lean Manager tasked to “implement a culture of Continuous Improvement” inside a major Fortune 100 corporation. At the time, I was thrilled to take on the challenge but later learned that failure was foregone conclusion. While many talented, smart, and hardworking people joined me in this effort, we kept running into major structural challenges that proved greater than us. For one, just a few months into the effort, we had several changes in leadership that undermined our initiative. People higher up in the company kept hiring leaders that did not buy into Lean. Every time this happened, we went through the painstaking process of re-selling Lean to the new leaders. We would gain ground only to lose it again with the next leader. Secondly, there was no budget or expectation that people participate, other than the daily metrics review. Managers declined to join Kaizen events and participants were ripped out of live events midway through. Business needs took priority; and unfortunately, Lean was not considered business needs. Thirdly, the Lean team was expected to track and sustain results of each activity into perpetuity. As the activities stacked up, so did the burden of sustainment, all placed on one small group of people. Management never quite took responsibility for new processes or changed their own behaviors. This leadership approach and lack of stakeholder ownership made Lean impractical and thus impossible to sustain long-term.

I started to realize that I would not get the support and consistency that I needed from the company to do what they hired me to do. My response to these realities was to lead a bottom-up Lean movement. I was going to create such a ground swell of results and enthusiasm that leadership would have no choice but embrace the movement and get behind what we were doing. My plan was essentially to raise a grassroots army and force leadership into submission. I would solicit ideas and engagement from the folks on the frontlines, then I’d pull whatever strings I could to get them implemented, leveraging the maintenance work order system, use my corporate AMEX to outsource for contractors and resources, and train people until their heads couldn’t absorb anymore Lean. Often, I was out on the shop floor rolling up my sleeves installing whiteboards, painting lines on the floor, leading gemba walks and Tier Meetings, and installing centerlines on the equipment myself.

Of course, even though we had achieved incredible results, none of the acceptance I had hoped for actually happened. In fact, other managers felt that their authority was increasingly being challenged. They mistook progress in Lean for lack of compliance with their authority. In their eyes, I was staging a coup. Every time a new person came forward to testify how Lean was transforming their jobs, leadership felt threatened as if the coup was gaining traction. They found ways to subtly punish the converts. These leaders weren’t being graded on the advancement of Lean; only I was. They were being held to very different standards and didn’t see Lean as critical for their own success. All the 5S, Visual Management Boards, RCA’s, Kanbans, Gemba Walks, Kaizen Events, and all the rest just felt like overkill for them. It was too much. While I was trying to get everyone to cooperate with my program, they were trying to get everyone to comply with theirs. Everyone was at odds. After a couple of years of persuading, convincing, and selling the leadership on the idea that Lean could also solve their problems, I was offered a position with a top-tier Management consulting firm and took my leave. I returned a few years later to check in on the plant hoping that the team had seen the light and accepted Lean as the way forward, only to discover that practically all the incredible systems that I had put in place had declined to their original state. I was heartbroken. I had also seen that several of the most defiant managers were promoted within the business and a few others were still there, plugging along as if none of it ever really mattered. In retrospect, I suppose they were right.

It took years of reflection to understand what had gone wrong. Lean, or any form of Continuous Improvement, can never thrive as a bottom-up endeavor. It must come from the top-down. Just like a river that flows from North to South, kaizen should also flow from the customer, through the C Suite, and to the frontlines. In my story above, I was essentially swimming against the current of a mighty river. I viewed the natural flow of the river as resistance to change. Even though I was executing the job that I was given, there was never really any path to success. This was largely because the company had done a poor job aligning priorities from the top-down. There was no pull for Lean because there was no need or desire for improvement upon the status quo from my immediate managers. The team was content with fighting fires every day and having company picnics occasionally. There was no single greatest thing to achieve that would have made Lean mission-critical for success. In other words, there was no unifying strategy that made Lean necessary.

Impruver - Lean Flow - Top Down

Later in my career, I was hired to help a leading global Household Cleaners manufacturer to deploy and execute strategy. Here is where I saw how getting clear on what’s wildly important to improve created pull for Continuous Improvement. There, I gained more exposure to the thought processes and mindsets of senior leaders throughout the company. It turned out that they were also highly concerned with improving business performance. Somehow their direction and urgency for improvement was being lost in translation as it cascaded through middle management and to the frontlines. My job there was to help clarify direction, create alignment, and drive execution. In doing so, Continuous Improvement was given direction, as opposed to being a collection of random activities and tools that leadership did not care much about. I learned that with good strategy execution, frontline workers clearly understood how their contributions were critical to the company’s success. They better grasped what the company was trying to do and how they needed to help. Middle managers, including Lean Managers, in this environment served more as coaches with everyone pulling the chain in the same direction. At the head of the chain was the customer, or the market. With effective strategy execution, I better understood what Lean was trying to accomplish, creating true pull from the customer, not just one product at time, but also in the long-term direction that the company was moving. By driving better execution of strategy, everyone had a reason to improve every day. Every leader, middle manager, and frontline employee had mission-critical objectives to deliver against. They were pulling for Lean tools and support because they could not achieve their objectives alone. This was a stark contrast to the Lean Manager pushing work that no one had value for. Mr. Imai’s comment on kaizen, being everyone, every day, everywhere is a powerful recipe for a great culture; however, there’s a missing ingredient – strategic direction. You don’t have time or resources to improve everything so start with what’s most important. The purpose of strategy is to define what’s most important to improve next, to what extent, and by when. If the strategic challenge is great enough, it will require the active engagement of all. The persistent and endless execution of strategy, therefore, is Continuous Improvement.

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