Don't “implement” or “transform”; shape and lead pragmatic change

Published on 8 August 2017 by Isaak Tsalicoglou.

A great deal of attempts to “implement” great ideas or “transform” organizations represent a lack of capabilities to shape and lead pragmatic change.

A great deal of attempts to “implement” great ideas or “transform” organizations represent a lack of capabilities to shape and lead pragmatic change.

Note: feel free to substitute “Agile” for “Lean” in this article—it seems to work equally well.

The state of the market

In the past months I have had many discussions with professionals in the fields of continuous improvement, operational excellence, and organizational development. Some of these discussions have been during sales calls, or simply over coffee and Skype with people in my network. Others have been online, as a result of the runaway success of “The incredible story of Deft”.

My discussions have circulated around topics such as Lean, Agile, Lean vs. Agile, methods vs. culture change, top-down vs. bottom-up initiatives, metrics of development performance, dealing with initiatives' “detractors”, etc.

The word “implementation” has come up often—e.g., in “Lean implementation”. So has the word “transformation”, to signify that an organization is dead serious about getting things done, e.g. with Lean. Sometimes, the latter word has been used to denote that, actually, only a tough-as-nails strongman with a top-down mandate and enforcement would be able to make change happen in organization X.

There have also been mentions of consultancies selling “transformation services” (sometimes, packaged with a “sensei” as a strongman surrogate), backed by marketing material with meanwhile-mundane arguments such as “the world is changing faster than ever before” or “industries are getting disrupted left and right”.

Not to be a contrarian, but… if someone promises you a Lean “implementation” or, even worse, a “transformation”, my advice is: get ready to run.

“When you hear of many cherries, hold a small basket.” — Greek proverb In fact, many of those who want to “implement” often put too much weight on applying processes, methods, and tools copied from elsewhere. Those who want to “transform” are far worse, in that they imply they have discovered a reliable approach to creating a Lean utopia.

Many of both the “implementers” and the “transformers” tend to forget about human motivation, pragmatism, and the ability to shape and lead change. However, these are the exact elements required to turn abstract Lean thinking into improved business outcomes, even if this is done through the use of processes, methods, and tools.

“Implementations” disconnected from reality

Often, training and consulting for “Lean implementation” resembles a Toyota-worshipping attempt at pushing a set of manufacturing-oriented methods in a manner that is implied to be impervious to doubt and questioning; i.e., dogmatism.

Principles? Unquestionable!

Methods? Unavoidable!

Tools? Imperative!

Talking to people who have had to endure such bouts of mismanaged by-the-book Lean “implementation” can be enlightening. In fact, I would recommend Lean fans to “go to gemba” and troubleshoot their approach to Lean far more often than they do. Lean's brand is heavily damaged, something that its various special interest groups seem to still not get.

Lean all the things!!111

No wonder. Many attempts at “doing Lean” are laughably out of touch with motivating people towards creating actual business impact. So much so, that they have cast a horrible pall over the entire body of knowledge we call “Lean” as tone-deaf and disconnected from business reality. That's a pity, because Lean actually has a lot to offer.

I am implying here blatant examples of Lean abuse, such as a Lean consultancy promoting the use of Lean methods in the organization of office drawers, of all places. Because, supposedly, nothing increases customer value in the work of a product manager quite like standardizing the position of fruit snacks on a desk…

Or, another consultancy stretching its capabilities from the manufacturing shop-floor into R&D, promoting one-piece flow on the execution of hardware testing or simulation campaigns. Because, supposedly, OFAT is as good for the development of products as for the development of cardboard mockups on the shop-floor…

Or, an internal “Lean manager” jumping to the conclusion that stand-up meetings are the miracle cure to lacking cross-functional communication, regardless of the underlying root causes of said issue. Because, supposedly, if you run meetings exactly like Toyota, you're bound to become as successful as Toyota…

All these are examples of anything but business-minded thinking; of well-meaning, proud operators of screwdrivers treating everything, including nails, like a screw.

“Transformation” is too big a word

At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be a universally applicable approach for establishing Lean thinking in an organization. This is actually for good reason, given the complexity and diversity of organizations, and the fickle nature of human behavior.

It is, however, also contrary to what numerous “Lean transformation frameworks” peddled by Lean consultants and special interest groups as cure-alls would lead you to think and, perhaps, believe.

For example, you may have noticed that even those organizations that have created their own “$COMPANY Business System” have had to create their own company-specific system for putting Lean into practice with reliable results.

And, in fact, even those companies that follow the “implementation” approach get their good results by being really diligent about:

  1. increasing their people's skills,
  2. applying process, methods, and tools,
  3. tracking and evaluating progress with a critical eye,
  4. adapting their course and evolving their approach, and
  5. persisting in improving business performance.

That is quite different to some companies' approach of sprinkling Lean on top of the organization and its legacy processes by practicing Lean methods within a couple of pilot projects and calling it a day.

But what is the alternative to a “transformation”?

If it isn't yet another by-the-book “paint by the numbers” recipe, the alternative approach is typically a series of interventions with limited scope, aiming to plant the seeds of Lean thinking across the organization through hands-on methods, either from the bottom-up or as part of a top-down mandate—or both, which actually works better.

In any case, the alternative approach usually relies on the Lean manager's or consultant's 1) prior experience and 2) personal agenda.

The former is shaped by the Lean fan's past employment, e.g. at Toyota, its suppliers, or one of its many competitors “doing Lean”; and, quite certainly, this prior experience will not be a perfect fit to other organizations, except after a lot of adaptations to the new context—a tough call to make for someone enamored with inspirationally Lean companies.

The latter is sometimes driven by the hidden agenda of becoming necessary; e.g., to guarantee recurring management attention or service revenues. This often creates a supply-driven situation; e.g., when the interventionist is a fan of a specific method (e.g., Kanban), this method automatically becomes the purported key to success, regardless of the actual needs of the organization or the uptake by its people.

Hopefully, yet rarely, the alternative approach also relies on a solid understanding of the organization's specifics, such as culture, strategy, and history on behalf of the Lean fan.

The effort to achieve this solid context-specific understanding seems to diminish proportionately to the number of Toyota-titled books a Lean specialist seems to read. And, if you know Lean enthusiasts, you'll also know that many of them are bookworms, often reading far more books than necessary to make things happen, and more than enough to make some believe that everyone should strive to become Taiichi Ohno.

As such, Lean as a concept is suffering under attempts to “implement” it, as if it were an IT system, or a recipe in a cookbook. Such attempts unfortunately tend to be largely reactionary. For example, with the aim of helping companies to overcome the effects of crises of shrinking profits or insufficient quality when these occur, rather than long before they come about.

Putting the horse before the cart, i.e.: pull

Yet, in the best-of-the-best of companies, working according to Lean thinking is proactive. It's not based on the fleeting emotional reactions to the elements of an internal communications campaign—for example, on an inspirational keynote speech, sets of colorful brochures or posters, a training program, or planting Lean in the communication of the corporate strategy—although such elements may be parts of a larger intervention to introduce Lean ideas and shape the discourse around them.

Rather, success with Lean requires an understanding of its most salient elements; of the ones that will make a difference in this specific company's context and realistic target state—and tightly interlinked with the actual issues faced by the company, its aspirations, and constraints. Maybe Kanban is one of these salient elements, to begin with, e.g., to introduce the ideas of flow and pull. But it won't be the same for every company in terms of priority.

Success with Lean also hinges upon slowly-and-surely incorporating Lean thinking into the organizational culture, structure, and incentives, so that it can be progressively embraced with sensible effort and rising business impact. Maybe this can happen, e.g., by taking inspiration from thinking with A3s to get people to solve problems with clarity and openness to coaching. Again, it won't be the same for every company.

The Lean community is focused on Lean push

Keeping in touch with the global Lean community quickly reveals that these are decidedly not the topics most often talked about. Instead, the discussion often revolves either around Toyota This or Hoshin Kanri That based on books, or vaguely around culture change with scant practical ideas to make this happen.

Alternatively, the discussion revolves around the pipe dream of supplanting the status quo with the entirety of Toyota's system in one fell swoop. When has this ever worked? And how is a bet-the-house approach a demonstration of agility and good business sense, especially when the house isn't burning to begin with?

To be fair: of course, introducing Lean thinking into an organization will, for sure, at some point, require experimenting with good practices, such as methods and tool—some of which may, indeed, have proven to be useful elsewhere, including at Toyota. What matters, however, is the motivation and reasoning behind the tools chosen, as well as the timing and approach of their introduction.

Wait—what happened to the human aspects?

Business-minded approaches to leading change and improvement do exist and are constantly being refined with inspiration from, e.g., Lean itself, and also from its relatives, such as Agile and Design Thinking, just to name a few sources of good ideas. Such approaches aren't and can't really be standardized, as no two companies are the same. Very often, they can simply be gleaned through someone's writings or are tacit knowledge in someone's head, as they depend on a “meta-process” and skills for organizational problem-solving, and for shaping and leading initiatives for change and improvement—in fact, with inspiration from Lean concepts.

Most importantly, such pragmatic approaches depend on choosing appropriate elements X or Y from different domains of knowledge, without getting stuck on the availability of a book on “Lean X” or “Lean Y”.

We know, for example, of the “self-efficacy theory” of human motivation, or of popularized models for increased performance and job satisfaction, such as Daniel Pink's Autonomy-Mastery-Purpose trifecta. We also know of System Dynamics, and how engaging people in systems thinking can create a shared mental model of recurring problems.

Yet, most conferences, literature, studies, frameworks and business novels on Lean are curiously devoid of such viewpoints and discussions. Instead, they are full of examples of methods application or of dry Lean theory, in which, e.g., motivation is simply a given once people realize how awesome Lean is or once their boss coerces them to “volunteer” for “Lean implementation”. Such sources of Lean knowledge also rarely explore the group dynamics of getting real people to try out and adopt Lean thinking. Instead, they prefer to wax philosophical on Lean, portraying its target state as a “heaven on earth”.

In this Lean utopia, miraculously, everyone has become an enlightened knowledge worker and/or servant leader, and nobody ever has an ego or carries a hidden agenda with human emotions of e.g. self-preservation in the face of organizational turmoil.

No wonder Lean is a tough sell, when its fans attempt to sell it.

What we need is pragmatism and change leadership

Such visions of a utopia to be reached after paying penance using cookie-cutter approaches help no one; neither the business nor its people and customers.

The longer we treat Lean as an isolated objective to be pursued with such “implementations” or “transformations”, the more it will stagnate as a distraction from everyday work or, as a matter of surface-level compliance or, worse, as a sink of budget and everyone's attention.

We need to begin to view Lean thinking as a normal, must-have (not nice-to-have) aspect of the culture, daily life, and development efforts of a healthy organization that aims to create and capture more value than ever before in its history.

Paradoxically, this might require avoiding to talk entirely about how Lean is great and important and must-have, how Toyota is a great example for all, etc.

Take Lean down from its pedestal

As surprising it might be to many Lean afficionados and self-proclaimed experts, gurus, or coaches: getting results from Lean might first require taking it down from its pedestal.

Instead, it might take focusing on pulling appropriate solution options from its body of knowledge, in order to solve concrete business problems—together with people who care to solve an actual business problem, regardless of whether the attempted solution is part of Lean or of Toyota's practices.

To this end, we need business leaders and consultants (internal or external) who are competent and willing to deal with Lean in a cross-functional, business-minded manner in pragmatic, not dogmatic ways.

Recursive Lean

To do so, it's necessary to apply Lean on Lean itself.

For example, pragmatic change and improvement to instill Lean thinking might require ideas from the Lean Startup to shape and lead a large change initiative as if it were a startup with a behaviorally-disruptive service product.

It might require ideas from Agile to act like a Product Owner of the “product system” called “Lean” to conquer the internal stakeholder markets through a series of iterative and incremental loops of product improvement.

Or, it might require having the guts to strive for a culture of error-tolerance, open to doubt and criticism, and equipped with strong problem-solving skills and finesse for collaboration in workshops.

It's all about people with the right mindset and skills

This means that, counter-intuitively, most Lean-focused managers, experts, consultants, or “senseis” out there in the market are not the best fit for the challenge of putting Lean into practice. Yes, they might be very competent in putting Lean methods into practice. In fact, they may have studied or experienced first-hand how Toyota does things. However, that doesn't automatically make them competent in shaping and leading change across a larger organization.

Unfortunately, many Lean-focused professionals are far too removed from the action, and far too caught up in selling the product of “Lean as a solution” to all kinds of business ailments. This comes at the cost of being able to transition from solution-selling to establishing sustainable and self-sustaining behaviors according to Lean thinking.

This, however, also means that actual, business-minded, cross-functional leaders, employees and consultants might just be the right fit for the task; provided, of course, that they “get it”. I.e., provided that they are able to shape and lead change (also by engaging Lean experts), and aim for business impact with Lean and other ideas as the means for it, not as the end in itself.

Join the discussion

Comment on Linkedin.