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Behaving Badly - Can Lean Continuous Improvement be Sustained?

By Jabil's Blog 'Aim Higher'

Oct 09, 2013

Lean - one word that instantly evokes the idea of efficiency, swiftness and strength. As a management style and corporate philosophy, it can help companies re-make themselves to achieve more profits, improved quality and enable greater responsiveness to ever-changing markets.

Sustaining Continuous Improvement
In recent years, though, the idea of continuous improvement has not exactly produced the same efficiency results for large organizations. Lean continuous improvement programs did drive Japan’s economy several decades ago through the production of low cost, quality products. However, it is arguable that Japan lost its dominance in consumer electronics to other competitors in Asia, South Korea and elsewhere. Frequently, companies are finding that sustaining the gains of kaizen are one thing but driving further improvement over and above what already was achieved is difficult.

Do we abandon continuous improvement programs as a result? No, but perhaps it is time to ask some questions on how we influence behavior in our lean continuous improvement programs...

  • Do we continue to run a one-size-fits-all lean program across the organization or is there opportunity for tailoring the continuous improvement program to different parts of the organization?
  • Are we focused solely on efficiency gains and improvement so much that we overlook whether the outcome adds value to the organization and ultimately the customer?
  • How are we implementing new ideas to improve people’s actions within the organization that will drive continuous improvement without stifling innovation?

Visual Management
One method companies implement and use to change organizational behavior in manufacturing plants is through the Visual Management Lean approach. The introduction of a visual management system benefits an organization through enhanced communication, increased employee involvement and quicker decision making. Telling a story through visual methods can drive problem solving that is crucial to continuous improvement and further efficiency gains. Visual Management also helps to reduce the isolated silos of information on the manufacturing floor. It delivers information through visual management boards and other methods in which everything is communicated publicly and easily understood. It not only communicates but also controls workflow and processes.

Jabil manufacturing sites incorporate the visual management system with the addition of scoreboards, production control charts, team communication boards and other types of visual control on plant walls and common areas. And Lean Galleries in high-traffic areas of the plant provide a physical place to interact with Lean and become personally involved.

Changing the Organizational Behavior
“Lean requires a fundamental shift in organizational culture and behavior, from rigid to dynamic, from top-down management to flexible and adaptive implementation of change that can be initiated from any level. Employees must not only be empowered to suggest ways to increase efficiency, but they must also be expected to detect these opportunities,” said Jaime Villafuerte, director for Jabil’s Lean Six Sigma program.

Lean transformation is about turning “lean” behaviors into habits so people develop a new better way to do things. The key question is how to create these new habits? A lot of research exists about creating new habits and so far they support the lean practices of transformation. We only change our behavior (e.g. quit smoking) when there is an emotional connection. Knowing that we need to change is not enough. Similar in lean, knowing about the tools and lean strategies is not enough for people to start applying it.

In essence, emotional connection is the secret to effecting behavioral changes - action has to be intrinsically motivated. Individual behavior is not enough to create a Lean transformation. It is by focusing a critical mass of engaged people that embrace the Lean philosophy that a company’s culture begins to shift. Change, lean or not lean, by external champions doesn’t last and is usually rejected immediately after the “change” agent goes back to corporate - externally driven change is not sustainable.

Jabil’s Deliver Best Practices is an annual, global continuous improvement challenge to recognize, support and promote process advancements at Jabil that was first launched in 2009. The Deliver Best Practices Competition evokes this type of emotional connection by sites and functional groups sharing their achievements and demonstrating their commitment to continuous improvement and Lean programs.

Maintaining a Lean organization, like maintaining a lean body, takes continuous work and monitoring. Leaning requires constant effort, adaptability and the willingness to shift directions when necessary. Has your organization embraced the Lean philosophy? What are the greatest challenges? What are the greatest rewards?

For further information on Lean, check out “Creating a Kaizen Culture”. Jaime Villafuerte is co-author of the book.

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