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    Solving the “Sustainment Problem”

    Quick hit improvements achieved through event driven activities such as rapid-improvement events will only benefit the organization in the long term if those improvements can be replicated across shifts, lines and facilities.

    As a consultant I get asked a lot of questions about implementation issues – from everyone, including clients and airline seatmates – and the question I get asked most often is “how do I solve the problem of sustainment”? 

    Not being able to sustain and replicate improvements is not the problem; it is a symptom of a larger issue –leadership skills that have not yet been fully developed.

    Why?  It’s my experience that many organizations have fallen victim to event driven improvement.  In this environment, improvements only happen as a result of a formalized event such as a kaizen session.  The technical elements of the kaizen event have become ingrained in the culture, but no emphasis has been placed on the development of people.

    Most all kaizen events that I’ve seen or been told about are deemed to have been successful, in that they’ve resulted in a change to a process that benefits the organization, at least in theory.  However, once the event is completed and the kaizen team returns to their day to day responsibilities, there is often no one formally charged with the responsibility to shepherd the improvement to maturity.  Like a newborn, improvements left on their own almost always die.

    For improvements to take hold and “grow legs”, there must be a balanced approach to your efforts – I call it the “3 Legged Stool Approach”!

    Leg 1 – The formal improvement event

    No doubt, there is a time and a place to organize and execute a ‘strategic’ improvement event.  It just should not be the only weapon in your improvement arsenal.

    Leg 2 – Developing people

    It is paramount to success that you develop and build leadership capabilities in a continuous improvement environment.  And, I am not only talking about executive leaders, I am talking about leaders at every level of the organization, especially your front-line leaders*.

    Leg 3 – Bottom up kaizen

    It is important to ensure the environment is right for organic improvement – this no cost/low cost waste elimination happens outside of the formal kaizen event.  Expecting/allowing bottom-up change puts the continuous in continuous improvement.

    The role of your front-line leaders is critical to leg 2 and 3.   If the front-line leaders in your organization do not have the skills to shepherd improvements and foster an environment of bottom-up change, then that is why you are not having the success you want from your improvement efforts; why you aren’t able to sustain gains and replicate improvements.  And, while everyone in the organization has a stake in the improvement game, I would argue that no one is more important to the success of the effort than your front line leaders.

    So, if you are having difficulties sustaining hard fought gains…look at how you are leading your improvement effort, especially the tools, training, and job responsibilities you’ve given to your front line leaders…it’s there that you’ll find the key to success!

    Stop doing Lean things and holding your continuous improvement effort hostage to kaizen events!  Become a Lean company…get started learning new leadership routines.  If you’d like to explore this topic in more detail, drop me an e-mail, I’d welcome the opportunity to exchange ideas.

    Jim Vatalaro, Senior Management Consultant

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