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    The Improvement Strategy “Trinity”

    In a memorable scene from the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” one of the bad guys challenges Indiana Jones to a sword fight.

    As the challenger brandishes his sword in preparation for battle, Indiana sizes him up for a moment, then just pulls out his gun and shoots him. Duel over.

    I was reminded of this scene the other day as I sat listening to a CEO recount the steps and missteps of his organization’s lean journey. He outlined the early stages, in which they concentrated on training everyone in lean techniques, the evolution to a singular focus on rapid improvement events, and his eventual realization that they needed more than an events-focused strategy to achieve their goals. Because he ultimately understood that developing a lean culture would require changing daily behaviors, his organization’s employees are living lean every day as part of their normal work.

    Becoming a Lean Company—The Improvement Strategy “Trinity”

    During this CEO’s presentation, an audience member asked if he regretted the “wasted” years. His reply: “I don’t view those years as wasted because we have incorporated all of the tools and training into our initiative today. If I could go back and do it again, the only thing I’d change is the order in which we introduced them.”

    What separates the good from the great is the understanding that without all three of these elements working in tandem, lean success is elusive.

    1. Developing a Lean Culture

    Like the CEO above, we believe that developing an improvement culture is the key to achieving success. We invite our clients to think of it in terms of developing a culture of servant leadership, in which leaders at all levels spend the majority of their time serving the individuals that create customer value – the value adders. There are several routines associated with doing this:

    • Teaching and coaching
    • Experimenting with low-cost or no-cost improvement ideas
    • Helping value adders adhere to standard work
    • Collaborating with value adders in problem solving

    This is the most difficult component of your improvement strategy, as individuals up, down, and across the organization work to change the way they’ve managed for their entire careers. Fortunately, people development can be done in tandem with other elements in your strategy.

    2. Tools Training

    We strongly advocate education at all levels in a lean environment. In order for all associates to take part in improvement activities, they must have at least a basic understanding of the foundational techniques and how to apply them. The more time you invest in training, the better-armed employees are to drive change in their own areas (what we call bottom-up improvement), and the stronger your overall results.

    3. The Improvement Event

    We are also big proponents of the rapid improvement or kaizen event; in fact, we introduced the format to the U.S. back in the 1980’s. Over the years, though, many have come to use kaizen events as their sole improvement method. While the kaizen event should be a part of your strategy, we advise clients to be sure events are strategically focused and linked so that they directly tie in to organizational goals. And in order to sustain and replicate the gains from events, the servant leadership culture must be firmly in place.

    Lean culture, trained associates, and strategic kaizen events: these three elements, working in tandem, provide the environment for the perfect improvement machine. Take a look at your own lean initiative. Does it incorporate all three elements? Are you being led down the tools or kaizen path? Fighting for improvement using a lean strategy that’s missing any of these elements is like bringing a sword to a gun battle. Before you know it, it’s game over.

    How are you doing? Use this simple diagnosis to see where you are.

    Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
    Culture Operators serve management The elements of a lean culture are generally understood, but have not been operationally instituted Leaders at all levels understand and practice servant leadership routines
    Tools Training No structured use of lean tools/techniques A cadre of lean tool experts has been developed A broad collection of lean techniques has been internalized by all associates
    Improvement Events Events are held at random without connection to strategy; gains not always sustained and never replicated Events are loosely tied to organizational strategy; gains are typically sustained but not replicated Events are strategic in nature and linked; gains achieved are always sustained and easily replicated to other areas/facilities


    If you’d like to talk more about the strategy “Trinity” or any aspect of your lean initiative, please drop me an e-mail.  I’d appreciate the opportunity to share perspectives.

    Michael J. Kuta, Managing Partner

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