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October 6, 2009

The Lean Leap of Faith: Taking the Time to Talk

For 20 years I’ve been advising companies, mainly small and medium sized enterprises, on improving their performance, and I have lost count of the number of businesses I’ve gone into where poor communication is the main stumbling block to significant improvement. Everyone means well, and wants to do the best they can, but full agendas, and pressure to keep staff numbers down and production up, mean that there just isn’t the time, the people or the energy for even simple team meetings.

Management are all intelligent and well qualified, and constantly dealing with a flood of “issues”: no time to talk. Supervisors and team leaders are frustrated by supplier problems, quality problems, production problems, absenteeism and so on: too frazzled to take time out to talk. And team members are constantly under pressure to raise production despite the problems. They know what the problems are but, perhaps, they don’t get any thanks for raising them; or don’t get any feedback when they do raise issues: their will to engage soon dies.

So we have companies, good companies with clever and thoughtful people in them, falling into a deadly cycle of endlessly repeating problems leading to poor performance, distrust, poor morale, absenteeism and labour turnover. It is very sad to see.

But sometimes companies realise that they are “stuck in a rut”. They start to make small changes. The answer is simple – take time to communicate. We’re not talking fancy IT systems here, or corporate aromatherapy, or expensive leadership team-building quoting Shakespeare – just taking some time, regularly, with your people.

This is the heart of Visual Management of course – going to the workplace to understand the situation, talk through the issues, and support improvement. However, achieving that needs discipline and training. It means taking a leap of faith and investing people’s time over an extended period.

It is not my purpose here to write an essay on Visual Management. Based on my experience, here are what I see as the key issues in building communication at all levels of the organisation to provide the platform for significant performance improvement:
• Daily cell measures, with time set aside, supported by supervisors and team leaders, to review issues and work on root causes;
• Weekly visual Value Stream measures and Value Stream meetings to discuss performance. Improvement teams set up and trained to work on critical issues;
• People working together, across departmental boundaries (preferably set up as Value Stream teams) to identify and solve problems;
• Regular time set aside for improvement activity in all work areas, supported by managers in attendance;
• Managers taking the time to visit all work areas, listening to issues raised, and encouraging the resolution of problems.

This requires an investment of time rather than finance – although it is fair to say that staffing levels need to be sufficient to allow half a day or more per person per week to be dedicated to communication and improvement activity.

Taking the time to talk to your people, and involve them will pay huge dividends in a fairly short period of time. Taking the time upfront to work on issues of quality, production and morale will be more than repaid through the improvements made; and the time invested will be recouped in improved quality, throughput and customer satisfaction.

Starting now. Take the time to talk to your people.