There was a story of interest to Lean Managers in the September issue of Capital, the Australian Financial Review’s monthly magazine, which arrived with my paper last week.. In an article about the fertiliser and explosives maker Incitec Pivot, the author refers to the “long understood” theories of lean manufacturing. Long known, maybe, but often incompletely understood. But James Fazzino,the CEO of this company is spot on when he says “The role of managers and supervisors has changed from directing to coaching. Once they make that transition, it frees up their time to become leaders and strategic decision-makers which again creates that sustainable continuous improvement culture.”
Truly lean companies understand that Lean Practice is not only about improving processes, but rather a holistic approach to management based around developing all employees as problem-solvers who will take responsibility for making improvements in their own areas, as individuals or teams, in line with the strategic direction of the organisation.
How do we develop people as problem-solvers? By teaching them simple problem-solving techniques and getting them to practice, and coaching them as they go. How do we coach? By resisting the habit of telling people what we think are the answers (because we don’t really know) and instead asking them questions designed to get them to see the problem as it occurs, get the facts, identify root causes, and do controlled experiments to check whether countermeasures fix the problem. And then reflecting on what we can learn from the result, and what we can learn from the process of achieving that result. Over time, applying this practice as a routine leads to a culture of continuous improvement.
None of this is easy to achieve, but with leadership and determination from the top, and hard work by everybody, it can be done.
Our workshops on Lean Leadership for Executives are designed to get executive teams started along this journey, and in our coaching activities within organisations we see steady progress.