Balancing the See-Saw of Process Changes and People


Lean or operational excellence programs tend to be strong on specifying the process or engineering angle of the future state manufacturing system. The people angle, on the other side, is often less developed. This imbalance delays operational excellence projects and lean conversions significantly, and performance improvements are often a far cry from those promised.

On the technical side of a typical lean transition, process capacity is captured and bottlenecks identified, product families are analyzed and value streams defined, layout changes are designed and inventory levels calculated. On paper, this often looks pretty amazing, but….

Unfortunately, the future state for the people – and ways and means of getting them there – is often not closely considered. Yet making fundamental changes in the way the process operates deeply impacts the people in our organizations. We need their cooperation and trust, and to build their understanding and skills to make the required changes happen and ensure the process actually operates as well as it looks on paper.

When the see-saw of technical transition and people transition is unbalanced, results will be disappointing. Making meaningful changes will take much longer. And once the new process is ‘in place’, it will be much harder to ‘hold the gains’. As David Mann, in his best-selling book “Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain a Lean Conversion†puts it: every technical change requires new management practices to sustain over time.

So we need to balance the see-saw – but how?

Changing practices implies that new skills must be built and applied on a daily basis. We need to define clearly

  • The future state – which skills and habits are needed at each level of the organization?
  • How will we move our people from where they are to where they need to be?

Once defined, these future states and the “how“ can be formalized as changes to job descriptions and through career paths, for example, and then actively managed.

Let’s illustrate this for one organizational level, the supervisor.

As supervisors and middle managers play a central role in lean conversions and operational excellence initiatives, managing their skills transition is extremely important. Basic knowledge training in lean principles and tools is not enough. Leaders require new ‘soft’ skills to get the best out of their teams, including those featured in Training within Industry’s “5 Needs of Good Supervisorsâ€

  • Skill in Leading: How to build trust and quickly solve people p
  • Skill in Instructing: How to get people to follow new methods when processes change. How to make ‘standard work’ stick.
  • Skill in Improving Methods: How to involve people in optimizing their own processes.

The Training within Industry training programs develop these foundational leadership skills required by supervisors and middle managers to navigate operational transformations successfully. These must be applied with discipline, on a daily basis, to be effective. Discipline can be developed through Leader Standard Work. In addition, good leaders are good coaches. Coaching skills can developed through Toyota Kata skills training.

Of course, there are other important leadership skills. But the five mentioned above provide a powerful starter set of ‘people skills’ that allow front-line leaders to guide, train and support their teams more effectively though significant change initiatives, and to get outstanding results faster.

By defining people transitions for each organizational level and managing them more actively, we can accelerate the pace and impact of our engineering changes and grow our people. As Toyota puts it ‘Building people before building cars’.

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