Many components of a lean journey require a lot of activity: training, steering team meetings, benchmarking and study. These activities can consume vast resources and make those involved feel upbeat about their roles in making lean happen; however, none of these activities produce results. The only truly value-added activities in a lean program are those that directly deliver results — those that change the process or fix a problem.
Value added, in the strict definition of the phrase, requires three criteria:
1. The customer must value it and be willing to go for it.
2. It must change the product or service.
3. It must be done right the first time.
Real value-added activities actually work on the product or service. The objective of lean transformation is…transformation. If lean activities do not produce results that improve the organization, then they are not value-added.
Vetting Value-Added and Non-Value-Added Activities
An organization should consider whether non-value-added activities are necessary and determine how they connect with or support the value-added activities. For example, training is a popular and absolutely necessary activity. Without training, people do not know what to do or how to do it. If a company trains its people on the wrong material, at the wrong time, in the wrong way, this would be unproductive and wasteful; however, it would be well-disguised waste.
“We’re training everyone on lean,” the progress reports might note. Who could argue with that? If a company does not enable its employees to create change, does not give them enough or the right skills to create change effectively, or does not develop any mechanisms for change into which they can plug themselves, its training may have been better left sitting on the shelf.
One company trained its entire workforce on lean basics, but when it failed to devise mechanisms for the employees to walk away from their moving assembly line to work on improvements, the effort yielded little to no results. The training led the employees to believe that lean was the beginning of something good, and they waited to hear more from management, while management sat back and waited for the employees to take the ball. Nothing happened, and the company was on the verge of wasting years of investment.
Measuring for Success
Some companies confuse activity with productivity when they measure the wrong things during lean efforts — they measure the percentage of employees trained in lean and the percentage of employees who have participated in continuous improvement workshops. In this scheme, companies celebrate managers — whose percentages are higher than their peers — as committed to the success of lean. But companies typically do not review whether this actually produces results.
Companies often do not apply action orientation to a number of activities, including leadership development and strategic planning. Meetings, research and discussions are necessary — but only if they support action. There are dangers on the flip-side of this issue, when a company values results at all costs or covets today’s successes at the expense of tomorrow’s outcome. Anyone can squeeze a few more dollars by starving an organization of needed development, investment or improvement; or, an organization can temporarily ramp up production to an unsustainable level.
A company’s leaders should resist the urge to swing the pendulum too far in this direction. Attention must be paid to results and processes, achievements and behaviors — and the ends and the means.
Anticipate the Expected Results
There are two primary levers to help companies avoid confusing activity with productivity — the scientific method and applying more focus. I will focus on the scientific method, which is built into lean itself but is rarely followed by leadership. The scientific method refers to the process of developing a hypothesis, or being able to state the effect expected based on the cause or action taken.