As most will know and acknowledge, a key aspect of a truly Lean organization is its continuous drive towards better. Problems are seen as opportunities to learn how work really works and to distill improvements from the analysis of the problem and its underlying cause system. It is through this continuous problem detection and rigorous, structured problem solving that organizations close in on their ambitions. But it implies that we see problems as the so called “voice of the process”; as if the process is trying to tell us that there’s something wrong with it. And it implies that we see problems as the seeds of improvement waiting to be harvested.
But what happens when managers start pointing the accusatory finger, begin a blame game and make people, departments or suppliers into scapegoats? How would you feel in such a situation? It probably would be the last time that you would put a problem on the table or that you would be a constructive team member in investigating a process in which you or your department plays a role, right?
I recall a situation while working as a night shift operator in a huge industrial bakery (when I still was a student) where I was directed towards the beginning of one of the production lines. There I was told to put tin plates onto the conveyor belt. After having done so for the next fifteen or so minutes a supervisor came running towards me, his face growing purple. He started shouting at me, telling me I should have lined up the tin plates nose to tail as now the dough coming from the machine down the line was dropped onto the conveyor seriously clogging it. I couldn’t help feeling how unfair this was to me and how easily this could have been prevented by the supervisor.
While observing a similar situation, later in my career, I first heard the short story about the so called “three-finger manager”.
When you are a manager pointing your finger at someone, look at your hand and fingers. Do you notice that when pointing, three of your fingers are pointing your way. Interesting, right? We point at someone, and at the same time we point with even more fingers to ourselves. These three fingers will need to remind any manager with the ambition to become a Lean manager of three things before pointing their finger:
1. Did you provide a standard?
Before pointing your finger at someone working in a process, you should be very conscious that it is the responsibility of managers to ensure standards are available on how the job is best to be done. Without standards, there cannot be a consistent process and therefore you cannot expect consistent performance. And to be clear, ensuring standards are available doesn’t necessarily mean you yourself should create them. A standard is the currently known best way to perform the job, and this knowledge most probably resides with the people actually doing the job (although it sometimes it has not yet been standardized). Without a standard, you have no right to point your finger.
2. Did you provide training?
When you’ve been able to check of the first “finger” pointing at yourself, the second “finger” will ask you whether you have provided sufficient training to ensure the person that you just pointed your finger at possesses sufficient skill to perform the job autonomously. When you did not do so, you again have no right to point your finger. Ensuring the right competencies at the right skill level in your team, using the above standards, is your job.
3. Did you provide coaching?
Even when you can now check of the first two fingers, you’re still not done. Your third finger will remind you of the need to coach your people. Providing standards and training is necessary, but not sufficient. You need to be on their side, particularly at the start, to address their questions and correct our imperfect training. Only when you provide on-job coaching, your team members will be able to develop true autonomy in the job you ask them to perform. When you did not provide on-job coaching, which is your role as a manager, you again have no right to point your finger.
I have always found this little story a good way to show leaders what is expected in a Lean organization: provide standards, and train and coach your people to create autonomy in the execution of the standards. Clearly, there’s more to Lean and being a leader, but I still think of it as an effective story with strong messages that may benefit an organization in its transformation towards a Lean organization and its leaders into Lean leaders.
And maybe you will now ask, what about when I’ve checked of all three fingers? Do I then have the right to point the finger? The bad news is: not yet… Then you still have the question left whether the standards that you provided are adequate. And guess what: that’s also your responsibility (somewhat with a tongue-in-cheek). Maybe you are allowed to point the finger when people willingly sabotage the process. And I sincerely hope for you that that does not happen too often and if it does, I guess you will have other types of problems in your organization…