When the Wheels Fall Off (and They Will)

You’ve studied the Toyota Production System, you’ve attended webinars, you’ve read all the books. You’ve even learned a little Japanese in the process. Your team has been prepped and schooled in lean theory and seems enthusiastic about embracing something new. You’re ready to lead your team to the promised land of lean and your world is soon to be filled with joyous customers, happy employees, and record profits!

You jump in. You’re all energy and optimism! It’s almost too easy at first. I mean after all; this stuff is just common sense! Your people are excited to try something new and you see waste around every corner. You attack it with passion and commitment. Your team plans better than they’ve ever planned before and things are really starting to click.

And then it happens.

People start to fall back into their old habits. They’re late to meetings, they don’t actively participate in problem solving, and they roll their eyes every time you say “gemba”. Metrics are just reports and no longer spur action. Then the numbers start to slip right along with your team’s ability to meet commitments. You miss a few minor dates, and then you miss a big one - and you think “This was a huge mistake! Now what do I do?”.

Here’s what you do:

You start again. This time though, you go slow to go fast.

You concentrate on the basics. What is lean? Why does it matter? You grow your lean network and learn from those who are willing to share and who’ve “been there and done that”. You stay focused on the idea that the heart of lean is not about profits but about people and the processes that make them successful.

I know this because I have been there. Of all the hundreds of people I know in my lean network, I don’t know a one who has just decided to go lean and not fallen down at least once. Really – and I know this is a tired cliché – but if this was easy, everyone would be doing it. Sure many of these lean concepts are so simple to understand that you are lead to believe that they will be simple to implement. And while some of them are indeed simple to implement, many are not. They take rigor and commitment. You have to remember that you are not just changing processes; you are changing your team’s entire culture. A team’s culture is made up of their experiences and their beliefs, and you can’t change all of that overnight. The status quo has a great deal of mass and momentum, and neither of those are easily overcome.

Once you’ve hit reset, give the team no more than they can sustain at any one time. Only when they get a concept or method down pat, have confidence in it, and make it a habit, do you add something new. Soon you will begin to identify the players on your team that gravitate to lean thinking. Let these people foster others and become lean leaders. Which of your team members are pulling for more information? More responsibility? Those people are the ones to invest in. I’ve heard it said that you should “feed the hungry”, and I couldn’t agree more. You soon find yourself in the position of having to stay out of their way – and that’s when it gets fun.

Learning from failure is a basic lean concept. Believe it. Practice it. Stay committed to that idea – even when the wheels fall off.

Have the wheels fallen off recently? What did you do to stay to committed to the idea? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

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