The agency I work for is trying to get lean. I’m not talking about the agency’s “Wellness Program” that is encouraging everybody to exercise and eat right. Lean is a management approach that promises improved processes, customer satisfaction, etc. Don’t read any cynicism into that last sentence. I think Lean is very cool. I’ve read a lot about it and heard many Lean “practitioners” talk about it. I think it’s got amazing potential to help us make improvements that will benefit our staff and our customers. But I’m reluctant to jump into the deep end of the Lean pool. I’m not a strong swimmer.
Too often, we managers get caught up in the excitement of a new management idea. I’ve been guilty of it. To the skeptical employee, it can sound like the boss said, “I just went to a conference of heart surgeons. The things they do save lives! It’s amazing. We gotta get some that in this organization.” The staff has good reason to be nervous.
I don’t want to cut my workgroup’s chest open until I fully understand what this Lean stuff is all about. I have some hesitation picking up the Lean scalpel for several reasons.
- Lean may not work here culturally. Our organization has a long proud tradition of being decidedly “not Lean.” There’s a lot of inertia to overcome. But, it can be done. We can change the culture, but it will take a long time and enormous commitment from all levels of management and staff. It may also require significant changes in who works here. One of the most inspiring “Lean leaders” I’ve seen explained he had to replace a large portion of his workforce to get the culture change he wanted. That’s not easy, pleasant, desirable, or even feasible.
- Lean is not a panacea. It won’t solve all our problems, which makes it hard to commit to the culture change. However, I think it would solve a lot of problems. It’s a tricky cost-benefit analysis.
- Like heart surgery, Lean involves a specific set of skills that aren’t simple to learn and easy to carry out. Not everyone can do it, at least not without a lot of training and practice. In heart surgery, if you screw up you kill someone. In Lean, the stakes aren’t quite as high, but when you screw it up, you can destroy credibility and confidence.
These are serious considerations that cause me to be less than zealous in my approach to Lean. Here’s my Lean rallying cry for my staff:
“I believe in Lean. I’m convinced that organizations that have adopted it have made huge strides. However, I don’t fully understand how it works, and I’m uncomfortable asking you to follow me. You have every right to be skeptical. I do want to keep talking about it, learning about it, and maybe trying some of the ideas out. I hope you are intrigued, too, so we can learn about it together.”
Not too inspiring, I know. I’m no JFK. While I don’t want to perform Lean heart surgery on my group, I am going to encourage us, metaphorically, to improve our diet and get some exercise. Maybe we’ll get a little leaner.
What do you think? Should we just cut ‘em open and hope it works out?