What is change? The Merriam-Webster simple definition is “to become different”, “to make (someone of something) different” and “to become something else”. It implies that a transformation is required to become something different or else.

Through history change has been part or necessary for evolutionary processes to take place. From Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, we can infer that in order to survive we need to evolve and adapt. So based on this we could say change is part of our DNA and embedded deep in our psyches. We are constantly adapting to change in many setting on our life from a new relationship to a new family member, a new town or a new job. We don’t realize it but maybe we are wired to manage change after all! Wired does not refer to just being open, I think how we react to it and our past experiences determine our willingness to experience new things.

In a professional setting change is the rule of the day, we are constantly adapting to changes in processes, systems, technologies, applications, regulations, environments, and people, among others. The more open we are to embrace it, the better prepared we will be to successfully navigate our professional environments. There are many different types of business changes and our process of adaptation is different in each. I work in Consulting so I basically make a living out of change, in some cases specific and in others more broadly. Some of the most common types of changes I have been involved with are operational improvements (LEAN, Six Sigma), strategic planning and organizational/structure changes. For this blog, I will focus on LEAN operational improvements.

LEAN was conceptualized by James Womack and is currently used by many successful corporations (Toyota and Johnson & Johnson, among others). In my opinion it is more holistic because incorporates and analyzes the key aspects to address during any transformation: end user/client (needs, wants and delighters), operational processes, infrastructure (i.e. reporting, systems, and organizational structures) and employees (culture, mindsets and behaviors). The work is typically divided in phases:

  • Phase 1 – Understand and analyze the current process and environment; and identify major opportunities and ‘quick wins’.
    • Sample tools leveraged: Value Stream Maps, Shadows, Spaghetti Diagrams, Stakeholder Interviews, Time Studies, Demand Flexibility and Variability Analysis and Waste Analysis, among others
  • Phase 2 – Prioritize findings and design the new process considering the major opportunities from phase 1.
    • Sample tools leveraged: Takt Time, Work Balancing, and 5S (Sort, Straighten, Standardize and Shine), among others.
  • Phase 3 – Test and adjust the new process using a pilot group
  • Phase 4 – Finalize implementation and handover to client for roll-out

Our goal as a firm is to serve and partner with clients to improve and make more efficient, grow and develop a sustainable operation. We regularly require client staff to be part of our engagement teams, so the sustainable piece is incorporated from the beginning of the engagement. Training and having client immersed in the whole process is critical to start shifting the mentality towards continuous improvement. Our work as consultants is just the start of the change chain. There are always forces of change in action (i.e. a new regulation, or system)… so to remain competitive client need to adapt and continue evolving.

As part of our work we teach and train the operation on LEAN concept application, in one of our clients we’ve touched over 250 employees. Giving them the background and knowledge of concepts and tools is a critical piece of the pilot and implementation phases. It helps us explain (and them understand) why we disrupted their routines, processes and sometimes even their physical space; and enables us to speak the same LEAN language. Ultimately by gaining this new knowledge we can start transferring ownership and help employees start being accountable of the success of their processes. The continuous improvement mentality is critical for sustainability, employees must be empowered to challenge and continue looking for ways to improve and make their processes better. They need to understand how their piece is part of a bigger puzzle, how the pieces fall together and the impact that has on the end user/client. This way, when they are trying to improve their process they are not only looking at just their piece but also at the whole puzzle from an end user/client perspective. For all of this knowledge sharing is critical.

In my experience with successful and not-so-successful LEAN engagements, there needs to be a shift towards employee empowerment, accountability (not only of processes per se but also of their individual learning and development) and a knowledge sharing organization. To achieve this shift, there needs to be an engaged leadership that besides “walking the talk” helps promote and recognize these behaviors. An article on this year’s April HBR states that “Cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges like reworking an outdated strategy or business model. The culture evolves as you do that important work.” If this is true, LEAN is just the start of a cultural change and leadership has a pivotal role on its success.

For more information on the impact of culture and knowledge management and sharing for continuous improvement stay tuned…