I strongly believe (always have) that every person wants to do a good job when they come to work. In life in general, we want to be better tomorrow than we are today – this is just human nature. As you advance in your career, you naturally aim to succeed. Like learning to walk, each step is steadier and stronger than the last.
Why the Challenge?
If our proclivity is to seek self-improvement, then why is it such a challenge for organizations to adopt the notion of continuous improvement as a central tenet to doing business? It makes perfect sense. But, in most organizations where I have worked, seeking improvement has not been on the agenda, at least not articulated as such.
This question was on my mind as I listened to David Meier, international expert on lean philosophy and practice speak at NRG Systems last week. He spoke about developing talent based on the two pillars of lean management: continuous improvement and respect for people. The key is to create a transparent and timely system for all employees to participate in problem solving and seek out improvement. We demonstrate respect for each other through active listening and challenge. Toyota managers are trained to develop their employees as experts to solve problems themselves. It is widely believed, in fact, that if you do not allow employees to solve problems that they are capable of solving themselves, then you are in essence taking away a privilege.
Easier said than done, right? Meier shared that only 2% of companies in the U.S. have actively embarked on a lean journey, and of those, only a fraction have achieved some level of “success.” Using his expertise from ten years at Toyota Manufacturing, Meier travels around the world trying to change this reality.
NRG Systems' Lean Journey
NRG Systems embraced lean practices in our manufacturing facility about 15 years ago. Three years ago, I was asked to serve on our company’s cross-departmental “lean team” charged with spreading lean thinking throughout all departments. The team initiated company-wide book club discussions on The Toyota Way, an excellent overview on lean philosophy, and started various trainings on lean tools, such as the A3 and Value Stream Mapping.
The number one lesson I’ve learned is that lean is not a state of being. It is not about a task or a tool. Meier stated that one does not become lean. “There is no such thing as a lean-o-meter to tell you how lean you are,” said Meier. What lean is, I realized, is really quite simple and profound. Lean is about inspiring learning, everyday, everywhere, with everyone. It’s similar to Peter Senge’s concept of a learning organization where all employees are engaged, seeking continuous improvement, actively solving problems at all levels, and feeling respected.
So what does this mean? For me it's a reminder not to get too discouraged. Lean makes logical sense yet it is the journey towards success that is important. The best approach is to take steps along the path, knowing that the next one will be sturdier and stronger than the last.
Anna Grady, NRG Systems' Human Resources Manager, serves on the company's lean team where she helps disseminate the principles and practices of lean.