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May 11, 2013

“Doing” Lean

I overheard a conversation recently that chilled me to the bone. One manager, speaking to another on the telephone, said “we need to decide whether we’re doing six-sigma, lean or systems thinking”.

 

It wasn’t so much that idea that there is a shopping list of business philosophies that senior managers pick and choose from that shocked me – that can hardly be a surprise to anyone in working in businesses. No, it was the word “doing” that chilled me.

 

Clearly the manager that I overheard had the idea that the company could just pick a “methodology” and “do it” – work through some pre-set action plan and tick off actions as they go. There was no understanding that management might have to change their behaviours; that the culture of the organisation might have to evolve; that appraisal and reward systems might be part of the problem.

 

It is that senior management in important organisations in the 21st century are just as narrow minded as they were in the 1970’s or 1950’s that chills me.

 

Have we learned nothing in the last 30 years? The answer, it seems, is “no”. Sure, we’ve got more used to flexible working patterns and a more diverse workforce (though I am not so sure about that at director level), but the  concept of managing business as a holistic system seems to have made no real traction. The process of management is still, almost entirely, based on the same “make the numbers regardless” idea that it was in the days when quality and the customer barely got a look in.

 

“Tick the boxes and you’re done with lean (or six-sigma etc)”, is the approach that most businesses take. I can see it in my mind’s eye – in six months in this organisation, line-managers will have a lean (or whatever) “scorecard” attached to their appraisal. If they have some sort of visual board and do a 5S “event” every six months, then they’ll get the marks they need for a bonus. Don’t worry about the quality of the implementation; don’t even suggest that senior management might lead by example; just add it to your “to do” list and you’re there.

 

It makes me sad. So many organisations trapped in a dysfunctional grind of making the numbers and ticking the boxes. No wonder people pad their budgets and build in slack to cover themselves. No wonder excuses and obfuscation are the first resort of the manager seen not to be making his or her targets. You can forget working together to solve problems when organisations are run on these lines.

 

Such a shame.