When the Lean team is the problem

Published on
February 2, 2024
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
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The role of the continuous improvement department in a Lean transformation cannot be underestimated. It provides teams with direction, guidance and support - both emotional and practical. In some cases, however, improvement departments are responsible for generating the very same wastes they want to eliminate. In these cases, they end up being an obstacle to the successful implementation of Lean Thinking.

In this article, we discuss why this happens and how to avoid it.

Focus on quality rather than quantity

A common mistake made by improvement teams is to try to "cover" many areas at once, prioritizing the speed of implementation over the quality of the initiative and the pursuit of maturity along the way. With such a focus on quantity, transformation often turns into a corporate race to show volume, looking for productivity gains without considering whether the implemented changes really create value for the end customer. This is nothing more than Taylorism disguised as Lean.

This approach can lead to overproduction (training hours, areas involved, kaizen events executed, chatbots, etc.), which becomes disconnected from the true purpose of a transformation, which is to connect the entire organization to deliver products and services in an agile way.

Bureaucratization of workflow

Another problem that can arise in areas of improvement is the segmentation of workflow due to bureaucratic structures. When improvements are sought in individual departments or areas without considering the company as a whole and the rigid bureaucratic structure of the organization is followed, bottlenecks, constraints and inefficiencies easily arise in other parts of the organization. This results in more work in inventory processing, longer wait times and a generally slower workflow. Surprisingly, when the improvement department is larger and more powerful (for example, with a direct report to top management), they tend to centralize everything and, in the worst cases, information and knowledge are not transferred or multiplied internally.

Weak focus on eliminating waste

Lean Thinking strives to eliminate all forms of waste. However, if improvement areas focus only on resource allocation or implementing new technologies without actively engaging in eliminating activities that do not add value, they risk creating more waste. Currently, with the digitization efforts taking place in many organizations, it is common to find teams who see a Power BI dashboard as the solution to all their problems, when what they actually need is a daily management routine that systematically attempts to identify, address and eliminate the root cause of problems.

Using Art Smalley's categorization of the four types of problems, we can say that improvement begins by addressing Type-3 problems (improving the current standard) and Type-4 problems (innovation). Yet we often see improvement teams spending more than 70% of their time putting out fires (Type-1 problems) and trying to reach the standard (Type-2 problems), when this should be the responsibility of the leaders of each department. This has led to confusion about what improvement is and, worse, to its outsourcing, disconnecting leaders from their true purpose and role.

How to overcome these obstacles

What can you do to prevent your areas of improvement from becoming an obstacle to change? It is essential to take a more strategic and holistic approach, keeping the following in mind.

Focus on customer value and their journey

Regardless of the model you use, it is crucial to connect everything you do with value to the user and/or end customer. Moreover, associating each action with the overall business problem is essential to prioritizing and making the work of improvement teams meaningful.

Transferring knowledge

Promote knowledge transfer, put ego aside and accept once and for all that the improvement area is not to excel, but to allow others to excel. Their role is to help value-generating leaders throughout the organization achieve their results in an easier way and rely on a Lean approach.

Lean are inside and out

It is totally incoherent to say that you are "Lean" if your improvement area behaves in the opposite way. You need to engage in reflection(hansei) and make sure you have an internal improvement plan. Measuring the time spent on each type of problem is crucial to avoid falling into the trap of doing other people's work and losing sight of the goal. More gemba and lean coaching and less Excel sheets and boring meetings. Also address more small problems and fewer big, endless projects.

Finally, we cannot ignore the all-important role of management in defining the role of the improvement area. Top leaders should promote the transfer of knowledge, make clear what the improvement team should not do and even promote the idea that in the future the organization should develop the ability to improve without depending on an improvement team or area.

The author

Thanks to Maria del Mar Revelo, project manager at Lean Institute Colombia.

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