Tag Archives: Leadership

The Mythical Value Stream Manager

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For decades, the lean community has been talking about the importance of creating and managing customer value across the value stream. A value stream is comprised of all the activities performed to create, manage and deliver value to customers. It includes all the wasteful and broken processes we have come to accept as inherent in the way the work gets done. A key player who focuses on coordinating and aligning the efforts of all pieces of the value stream is the value stream manager. Their goal is to get everyone working together and aligned toward the common goal of optimizing their entire value stream. I like to call this character the “mythical value stream manager” because they are described in books, but seldom seen in the wild – much like a unicorn.

This person is the master coordinator among silos, conflicting priorities, constrained resources and localized performance. No small task as most people focus on improving that small piece of work they have been assigned to and seemingly have control over. Can you really fault anyone for trying to make things better? Lean teaches us waste reduction, minimizing variation and addressing overburden as ways to improve flow. It’s no surprise that we attempt to apply these methods and tools to our own work first!

But herein lies the problem as well as the opportunity: local improvements do almost nothing to improve value stream performance and often negatively impact overall flow of the same value stream the team intended to improve!

Good intentions gone awry

I worked with a company whose Document Control Department decided to make improvements to their work processes with the noble intent of improving the flow of customer value. The company had been experiencing many delays in updating controlled documents (work instructions, drawing and technical specifications). The focus was on the time it was taking to process change requests and deliver updated and accurate documents to the appropriate work groups. The current process was taking days and sometimes weeks and crippling production and service levels in departments across the company. The team had received lean training and requested the help of a lean facilitator to guide them through an improvement effort.

After a focused 3-day effort, the team generated a series of countermeasures intended to address the blockers in their workflow which slowed or stopped their work. They rolled out the changes and measured the impact. Success! The total time it took from start to completion of their section of the value stream went for days to hours to minutes. The team held a party to celebrate the amazing results. They invited the departments whom they delivered they worked for. Surprisingly, no one attended!

A few people from the team were curious why no one came to the celebration. They paid a few people a visit and quickly found that the improvements they made had shifted work and problems to the very people they were trying to serve! Instead of impacting the flow of value across the value stream, they had optimized their flow by shifting the non-value added work to others. One team member shared, “What we discovered was that we had taken out the trash from our work flow  and dumped on our neighbors’ front yard! To make matters worse, we then threw a party and invited them to share in the fun. Our efforts were well intended, but we completed screwed things up!”

Without a person focusing of the flow of the value stream, how can we expect leaders and front line contributors to coordinate their efforts to create improvements that ultimately impact the customer? When so many of our performance measures are focused on local results, how can we understand and support value-stream level outcomes?

Why we don’t have value stream managers

If we accept the importance of creating flow and the impact of a designated value stream overseer, then why are they so rare? There are many reasons (excuses) that come up including: 

  • It’s not my job to focus beyond my area of responsibility
  • I’m busy just keeping my head above water
  • My numbers are good, go pick on someone else
  • I agree it’s important, but don’t step on my turf and try to influence my program
  • My incentives determine my focus and my behavior
  • Who needs more responsibility without authority? This is a fool’s errand!

Whether you agree with these points or not, they’re real in the minds of many.

What can we do about it?

When leaders understand and appreciate the potential impact of a designated role focused on managing the value stream to improve the flow, quality and value at the speed of customer need, they may be willing to run an experiment. Create the role, provide clear goals and boundaries, socialize the change and gain support, gather baseline performance measures, run a trial for 90 days, re-assess performance by comparing to baseline, reflect on the results, share the learning, take your next step based on the learning. Sounds easy! It’s not.

  • Identify a pilot area where you can test the effectiveness of value-stream focus
  • Socialize the idea with every part of the stream (all the silos, vendors, departments, customers, managers and leaders (start with the leaders)
  • Recruit a person who is willing to take on a temporary role of value stream manager – they’ll need a mandate to make things happen – this might be in the vocal support of the CEO or GM
  • Plan on getting it wrong, learning from mistakes and making adjustments based on the data

Measures help people align

What works best to align people across the value stream is the use of value-stream level metrics that everyone is measured by. When everyone is playing off a common scoreboard, they shift their efforts from localized to global results. Here’s a few examples:

  • Value stream percent complete and accurate
  • Value stream cycle time
  • Order fulfillment rate
  • Returns

Give it a try

If you  want to make a serious impact in your improvements, consider shifting your focus outward to a value-stream level perspective and find someone who is willing to take on the role of value stream leader. They’ll have to work with others based on what makes the most successful sense to the value stream rather than a single department or functional area. Approach this work as a learning experiment and expect many check/adjusts along the way. Good luck!

Until you shift to a focus on value-stream level performance, most improvement efforts are destined to miss the mark as they will shift waste and inefficiencies to another part of the business. Customers won’t feel the difference, even if you are celebrating the results! But what if your competition is focusing on value-stream improvements? From your customers’  perspective working with you, if things aren’t getting better, they’re actually getting worse.

I wrote this back in 2019 for the Lean Enterprise Insitute and a friend contacted me to share it again – Thanks Lisa!

Honor the Work of Others by Honoring their Work Experience

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Respect is less about how we feel about our people and more about what we do for our people!

So many work processes are performed “unconsciously” in the sense that they are done without a clear understanding of the key steps, degree of expected quality, how much time they should take, and how difficult the work should be. Beyond treating people well, respecting people is about being thoughtful and intentional about the work experience of the people you lead. When organizations leave work totally undefined, they leave it to each person to try to figure out the best way to do the work based on their own singular, personal opinion. This usually creates a chaotic mess.

Recently, I was working with a large tech company whose new customer onboarding process was a combination of tribal knowledge and make-it-up-as we-go work processes. After doing a thorough virtual “go and see,” it was clear to me that everyone was suffering, including the people doing the work and new customers who were shocked by the delays, uncoordinated communications, and the overall disappointing experience.

I asked the leader who I was working with, “What kind of a message do you think this sends to your people and your customers?” “We don’t really care about you!” was his reply. I think he nailed it… When work processes are left undefined and open to personal opinion, we send a strong message to people: “We accept the status quo, so do your best with our broken processes.”

When I am coaching leaders and team members, I often ask, “How long has this process been broken?” Invariably I hear, “As long as I can remember,” and “It’s always been that way,,. so we’ve learned to make it work.” But trying to make a broken process work means wasteful extra steps, mistakes, rework, interruptions, and highly variable flow of the work. It also means there is little stability around the time it takes to deliver and the quality that the customer receives. No one is happy; frontline workers live in fire-fighting mode while customers encounter a broad range of unpleasant purchasing and customer support experiences.

In response to the problem, we gathered a team to work on a rapid improvement effort around the new customer onboarding process, employing lean methods and tools. The team came together and worked so well that they completed eleven PDCA learning cycles across four A3s in a period of seven months. The results were amazing in terms of customer feedback and satisfaction, work performance metrics and teamwork!

The team celebrated briefly only to discover that improvement work was not a one-time effort. It became painfully obvious that the process for this and every other type of work needed to be adjusted and improved on an on-going basis in perpetuity! When I asked the leader and team members for key insight and takeaways from this experience, the common recognition was that:

  • Work processes need to be defined, shared, and honored by everyone doing the work
  • It was not enough to improve the work once; ongoing improvement was essential
  • Teams needed to be deeply involved in the improvement effort, but also needed support from their leaders and someone who knew lean thinking and practice
  • None of the other points really matter if the people who are doing the actual work do not feel respected by their leaders
  • The best way to show respect is to enable team members to improve their own work processes as a central element of their daily work

So what concrete actions can leaders take?

  • Go and See – spend time with your people doing the daily work on the front lines to understand what it is to stand in their shoes and do the work
  • Identify the core work processes that the team performs (just ask folks!)
  • After watching, asking, and observing, ask yourself, “Is this work process stable, commonly applied, predictable, and effective?”
  • If not, ask the team to answer the question, “What is the problem we need to solve?”
  • Create an opportunity for the team to hold an improvement event (aka Kaizen event) with adequate support and coaching for them to be successful. 

In short, honor the work of others by honoring their work experience. As a leader, when you take the time to deeply understand the challenges your team members face and the impact this has on teams and customers, you will demonstrate more respect for people while driving improved performance. This is a win-win for the customer, the team, and the entire organization.

Ultimately, it is not what you personally think or feel about the idea of respect that counts; it is about what you actually do to support your people. Demonstrate your respect for others by

Transforming IT Is More Difficult But Not Impossible – The Lean IT Diamond – Part 2

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This is Part 2 of Sequences, Behaviors and Integrating Adaptive Lean IT Systems – an updated article published in the Lean Management Journal in October 2015.

Today, many companies are actively seeking the benefits of lean IT and are undergoing constant transportation in their IT group. They are often familiar with lean and/or Six Sigma and have had some success with process improvement in other areas of the business such as manufacturing, accounting, and supply chain.

However, the landscape of IT, the complexity and dynamics of technology, the interdependency of its functional silos, and conflicting priorities when working with the Business, all combine to create a perfect storm of distinctive obstacles.

There is a key relationship that exists in all organizations. When understood and appreciated, it can provide clarity and direction to a lean IT transformation.

Let’s look at the components of the lean IT diamond and why it can be so helpful. At the top of the model, we begin with Purpose. A shared purpose is essential to create and drive a common intention, alignment, and commitment. Everyone in the IT organization (as well as the Business) needs to very clear on why we are in business, why we are transforming, and where we are vs. where we need to be.

If this shared understanding is not in place, you can be certain to see different behaviors, erratic degrees of engagement, and the consequential mixed results. Without a widely understood and collective purpose that people can clearly see within the context of their daily work, everyone is left on their own to identify what matters most and determine what they should do (or not do) about it. If you have ever witnessed pockets of improvement (aka islands of lean in a sea of waste), you can be assured there is a lack of understanding around shared purpose.

The next component is People. It may seem obvious that people are a central ingredient in building a highly effective organization. What is not so obvious, or at least publicly acknowledged, is that many work environments are abundant with uncertainty, disengagement, mistrust, apathy, fear, and political gamesmanship. In our first book, Lean IT Enabling and Sustaining Your Lean Transformation, I noted that people are often the only appreciating asset in an organization. When we treat people with respect and create systems and processes that position them for success, we cultivate trust, engagement, teamwork, and high levels of performance. Perhaps the most essential element in a successful transformation is to ensure the initiative is behavior-based. See the next post in this series for a discussion of behavior-based change.

Process represents the work we do to create value for our customers, to collaborate with our partners (the Business, vendors, supply chain, and outside resources), and to ultimately fulfill the mission of our organization. When processes are undefined, unclear, or not consistently followed, the effort required, the time it takes, the quality of the outcomes, and the frustration of staff and customers all become highly unstable and inconsistent.

The final component of the lean IT diamond is Information and Technology. It is useful to think of these two elements as distinct yet highly interdependent. With respect to information, IT is the mechanism that transforms raw data into useful and actionable information. IT, when done well, is the connective nervous system that joins people with actionable information.

Concerning technology, IT is the enabler of the business – capturing, organizing, and storing immense amounts of data, routine tasks, building transactional records, enforcing business process rules, managing secure access, all while providing work process functionality and visibility to all functional areas of the business.

The flow of complete, accurate, timely, and actionable information is a key determinant of the flow of customer value and organizational performance. When IT stops, the Business stops. When IT flows, information flows and the Business is positioned for success (of course it takes more than just great IT).

Intentional Respect

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Change is hard – we all know that – and ignoring the element of respect for people makes engagement and lasting change practically impossible.

Most of us are familiar with the Toyota Production System House, with its two pillars of Kaizen and Jidoka, but the model that resonates more deeply with many is The Toyota Way House as you can see below. This is certainly the case for me, and I’ve been reflecting on why this is.

Here’s a thought: the Toyota Way model suggests a relationship between the technical and social sides of a lean transformation that we intuitively know to be true.

On the left side is continuous improvement or kaizen, and here where most people invest their time, learning, and experimenting with the myriad lean tools available: value stream mapping, 5s, A3, PDCA, standard work, visual management, kanban, heijunkahoshin kanri, etc. These tools can be very effective at making a significant impact on safety, quality, delivery time, throughput, and productivity. However, most people discover that a tools-based approach to lean transformation is impossible to sustain and does not create anything approaching a lasting change for the better of people, teams, or organizations.

It’s really not surprising then that, according to McKinsey, 70% of all organizational improvement initiatives fail. This isn’t surprising considering the very few examples we have outside of Toyota of enterprise-wide lean transformations. There are many reasons why this is, but perhaps one key factor is that most organizations fail to intentionally balance the technical tools side with the social side of Lean. Most people say, “We respect our people. In fact, it is one of our core company values!” I don’t deny that most of us strongly believe in respect for people and that is great. But there is a big difference in believing in something and acting in a way that aligns with that belief.

On the right pillar is respect for people, so what does that really mean and what sort of actions can we take that shows we really practice respect for our people through the way we do our work? It comes down to this: how are we engaging our people? Is the purpose in peoples’ hearts aligned with our organization’s purpose? What specific behaviors are we taking to stand in the other person’s shoes and develop a deep awareness of their point of view? Do we try and try again to see the work from their perspective?

We spend so much effort trying to design perfect work systems and improve business processes focusing on lean tools, while simultaneously failing to connect with people on a level that awakens mutual trust, engagement, effective teamwork, and self-generating accountability (in other words accountability wherein people are intrinsically inspired – people assume accountability because they want to, now because they are being told to, measured, or threatened). A key takeaway from the illustration above is that creating a balance between the technical and social sides of Lean is not just good, it’s fundamental. It is the foundation upon which everything else rests. So, what are you doing in your organization to create this balance?

The next gemba walk you take, kaizen event you participate in, or daily stand up you attend, or A3 you review, ask yourself two questions:

  1. “What are we doing to show our people how much we care and how much we respect their opinions, ideas, contributions, and potential to transform?”
  2. “Are the actions we are taking to lead with respect fostering the levels of engagement, teamwork, and accountability needed to attain our vision and purpose?”

I recently worked with the Lean Enterprise Institute to create a new workshop, Lead with Respect, to address this very issue. The two-day experience is based on the book, Lead with Respect, a novel of lean practice, by Michael and Freddy Ballé. We developed the workshop with the support and input of Professor Ballé over the course of eight months and uses hands-on exercises to reinforce the specific behaviors of respect for people while applying the technical side of lean – those tools we are all so familiar with. This workshop raises our collective level of awareness of what effective leadership looks like and builds a bridge connecting the tools side of lean to the results and relationships side. Indeed it is only when we create an environment of mutual trust that we can change work habits and sustain high levels of performance.

Note: This version of this blog entry first appeared in the Lean Enterprise Institute’s Lean Post.