Often, in our consulting work, we are approached by firms that want to “do Lean” and develop a culture and practice of continuous improvement within their organizations. However, once some of these firms begin to understand that Lean and continuous improvement is hard work, and that time, resources and energy must be devoted to it, they become less enthusiastic.
A key problem that every firm desiring to improve must confront, and solve, is how to make the time and resources available for continuous improvement. For firms whose operations are afflicted with broken processes which require daily workarounds, firefighting, and event-driven management, this can be a challenge.
The challenge, it seems to me, is a simple one: if an organization is to improve, it must find the time in which to confront and solve problems. If it cannot do this, the organization is destined forever to keep its legacy practices and problems, with little or no improvement or change.
Turning an organization’s workforce into an army of problem solvers requires an up-front and real commitment of time and resources. For a variety of reasons, some firms are simply unwilling to change their current practices by committing resources to problem solving and continuous improvement. These reasons may be rooted in a lack of commitment by top management or a resistance to change by middle management. In effect, such a firm finds itself caught in a vicious circle: problems and firefighting consume a lot of the organization’s resources and time, and consequently there is no time available to make improvements.
Getting out of this trap requires a serious commitment by top management. In the short-term, resources must be mobilized and marshaled to confront and solve problems. Problems should be attacked and solved on a project-by-project basis, using appropriately configured and coached teams to create and implement solutions. While attacking the “low-hanging fruit” often seems like a logical place to start, it may not be the best: choosing chronic problems which are a significant drain on resources will pay back a higher dividend in time freed up to attack other problems.
In effect, an organization pursuing this path is creating time and space for itself in which to do further problem solving and improvement. The first steps are critical – the organization must be prepared to commit resources and suffer some disruption to normal practices for progress to be possible.
Lean is about competing on time – about reducing lead times, development times, etc. Competing on time requires improving on time – finding the time to problem solve and continuously improve. If you can’t improve on time, you won’t compete on time.