Lean concepts require strong leadership

The singer of a popular song in the early 1970's exhorts a friend in trouble to "lean on me, when you.re not strong." We are not privy to the friend's plight, only the melodic response it prompts complete with sliding bass notes and hand clapping timed at the right intervals to drive the singer's point home to the listener. It all combines to remind us that, at one time or another, we can all use a little help.

The same may well be true for your employees. As organizations embrace the Toyota Production System (TPS) and its lean concepts, they can often confuse and overwhelm their workers with ideas that seem foreign and complex.

Change brings fear of the unknown and with it, the inevitable rumors that lean is just a rouse for eliminating people. At times like these, folks could sure use someone who.ll ..be their strength and help (them) carry on.. Managers may not be able to produce a vocal response a la the popular tune mentioned above, but they should be prepared to lead their people through the changes and allay their fears about the outcome.

Lean is a way to eliminate waste (called "muda," according to TPS jargon) and its related cost. The resulting lean processes can make the company more competitive and ultimately more profitable. Managers have to demonstrate this to their employees and assure them that it isn.t their job that is on the line.but the waste associated with it. Once the waste is removed, the employee will be an important member of a team that is devoted to a philosophy of continuously improving the process and ensuring the future of their company and position.

Kindling enthusiasm for the changes that lean concepts inevitably produce, however, is also a management responsibility. You can train your employees to understand the importance of making work more "visual," "pull" systems with Kanban signals, and "standardization" of work to ensure customers get what they want, when they want it. But, as is often the case, these will all fall by the wayside unless employees understand their importance and have their managers involved everyday in driving these concepts home.

For example, a good lean tool used to help schedule work is a Gant Chart. The chart is prepared for a particular project and includes all of the tasks needed to accomplish that project. The tasks are listed in a timeline format from the start to the finish of the project. This sets up an opportunity for managers to meet with employees on a weekly basis to monitor the progress of a project and solve problems. It is an excellent way to connect managers to employees on day-to-day lean activities and ensure their full participation. Ultimately, it is management which must convince employees that lean is not a "flavor of the month" campaign and that eliminating waste and reducing costs for the customer is here to stay. In short, they need to provide the day-to-day leadership that emphasizes this through constant communication and enforcement on the warehouse floor, where it really counts.

In the final analysis, it is a battle not only for minds but for hearts as well. This is more than getting employees to change the way they do their jobs. It is literally redefining the organization's culture-a task that takes time, patience and continuous reinforcement. It is that crucial role that must fall to management. They must be there on the floor everyday, watching, challenging, but always encouraging when doubts and uncertainty threaten employees. After all, "we all need somebody to lean on."

Joe Cappello is director of marketing for Rotor Clip, in Somerset, N.J. Contact him at 800-557-6867.
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