Guest Articles

Maintaining a Fresh CI Program


Anyone who has been in or around a CI program has faced the potential of a program becoming stale or may be referred to it as needing to be reinvigorated. The subject of this newsletter is to openly discuss the elephant in the room and open our eyes to how we or others have done it does not have to be how we continue to do it. Alright, for this newsletter, I would suggest a program has become stale when its message is no longer being heard by the business. This could manifest as pushback on the amount of effort required to use CI, or by developing alternate methodologies like DMAIC, PDCA, Lean, Six Sigma, 8D, HCD, etc. Note these are all CI methods with emphasis on slightly different focus. A stale program could also show up as complacency with the level of business engagement or proliferation of the tools throughout the business. Effectively believing they have arrived at the destination rather than understanding CI is a journey. The best way I have found to think about this is to compare it to employee satisfaction. It is widely understood, employees are satisfied when their work is rewarding and are motivated by the feeling of Mastery, Purpose of work, and Autonomy by their leadership. Therefore, one contributor to a stale program is employee motivation.

As you know, most students in CI training are not there by choice. They were likely chosen because they have been successful in their career thus far and CI training is billed as the next step in their professional development. Assuming we didn’t strip them of purpose by randomly assigning a project to benefit the business yet outside of their direct influence. This is a pet peeve of mine. We have most certainly taken a successful and engaged employee and made them dependent on a lean expert to get approval for their work. Depending on the goals of the lean expert, their priorities lie somewhere between strict adherence to the methodology and managing their own performance metrics around project duration, and realizing the savings from the projects. Thus, stripping the student of autonomy and mastery. Yet as CI and/or business leaders, we are perplexed as to why it is so difficult to cultivate organically.

Exhibit A, Divergence of culture from Ideal Behaviors.

You have likely heard one of these phrases, “metrics drive behaviors” or “ideal results require ideal behaviors.” The reason these are important is that at different times they are the motivation and justification for action in our CI culture and our business. Several years ago, I saw this illustration (See exhibit A) for how corporate culture is derived from the ideals of its founders and explained it like this. Company culture is the result of employment practices which are a result of executing business processes created by the founders to best manage the business in alignment with their core ideals and regulation. The key realization is that you cannot simply change the culture to align with corporate ideals without first changing employee practices or business processes. I also like the book, “Change the Culture, Change the Game” as a reference for this type of thinking.

A second contributor to a stale program is the exceedingly rigid business processes around it. If you’re relatively new to CI then you probably think it’s rather stringent and any complaints are met with phrases that sound like, “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” In nearly every training I have been a part of, either as a student or instructor, there are 2 absolutes. Students are instructed to read the “Toyota Way” and back the principles by showing all these successful companies, like Toyota, who have practiced Lean for decades as the model. I would argue this is like being presented with the most delicious batch of cookies, but never receiving the recipe. The second absolute is to trust the tools. Do you remember the first time you led a group of people through the use of a CI tool, not in a classroom environment? Some followed us blindly and others asked the most obvious questions at just the right moment and very nearly unraveled all progress made to that point in the meeting. Tool use is very prescriptive, and it is implied to not deviate from it. We follow them verbatim or it is wrong. While we do see there is gray, we do not dare venture over into it unless instructed. Thus, imprinting lean methodology as a dogma upon us. I’m not going to tell you there isn’t a right way or wrong way to use a tool or even a good, better, best tool for a particular application. However, it feels ridiculous to debate the merits of similar tools rather than just pick one and go.

Exhibit B: Polarity Map of Lean Application.

This diversity of perspective is a type of polarity, like centralized vs decentralized, cost-effective vs service excellence, or even inhale vs exhale. One of these cannot exist without the other. Exhibit B is a polarity map of Strict Adherence to Lean Dogma vs Loose Application of Lean Practices. Notice the fear of strict adherence is not consequence of strict adherence, but consequence of loose application. Now consider the consequences of strict adherence. If I asked you to write down the symptoms of a stale program, how many of those would you have written down? It’s common to justify the strict adherence because the consequences are the lesser of 2 evils. After all, we were taught in training, if it’s not right then it must be wrong.  I would posit there are times when strict adherence is needed and other times when loose application is appropriate, just like you can have both centralized and decentralized. This compromise functions much like a control plan. The teams identify early indicators as the pendulum has swung too far in one direction and the process is out of control. A reaction plan is also developed to prescribe actions ensuring the process is corrected before the customer experiencing the defect.

The other thing the CI instructors don’t tell you when reading “The Toyota Way” is that you cannot account for or re-create culture. I cannot tell you where to give and where to take within the polarity map; it will be determined by the culture of the organization. I appreciate it feels like I just pulled back the curtain and then said, “and good luck!” Hopefully, you realize, whether you are the business leader, direct contributor, or lean facilitator, you have the ability to impact business processes and employee behaviors and can choose a different outcome. Remember the ultimate goal is not to have 10% of your trained employees following the methodology verbatim and using every tool correctly every time there is a problem. The ultimate goal is to have 100% of your employees practicing a tool mostly correct every time. Don’t let perfection get in the way of good enough. Solving business problems will never be a “nice to have,” so a program with the right focus should never become stale.