Most of us are confronted with this question: how to create productive change? We all face the same difficulties in getting teams and organizations to another level of performance using sometimes fundamentally different principles. Developing and communicating an enticing vision surely helps, but a certain sense of urgency is always required. But here I notice that it is often difficult to strike the right balance. In some cases, plants and teams are confronted with sheer impossible objectives, resulting in continuously being in the “red area”. In other situations, I see that we don’t create a challenging enough environment for teams to become productive. Management “cushions” the team and each time they are confronted with difficulties, padding is added in the form of capacity, lead-time, surface, tolerances, safety stock and others just to make sure the team looks good and can continue to work in peace. So how to strike the right balance?
Peacefulness: No Need for Changing
Surely, whenever we are confronted with challenges, the first natural reflex is to try to avoid the situation. When we deliver late, we want to start earlier. When we can’t get the work done with the current team, we ask for more people. When we waste machine capacity with changeovers, we would like to plan longer series or get more machines. And it is just as natural to respond positively to these requests. After all, it will help to satisfy the customer. And it helps the team to be effective on aspects such as quality and delivery reliability that are often very visible to management and the individual customers. And even if these measures are only “temporary” — to protect the customer — chances are that they quickly become the new standard.
Another thing that adds to this situation is that many managers like to position themselves as the patron and guardian of their teams. They try to gain respect from their teams by protecting their teams for top down pressures. They negotiate the additional resources to look good to their teams. But the negative consequences will off course show up somewhere higher up in organization in the form of increased cost and working capital. And particularly when there is not a complete and balanced set of indicators (visually) managed at the team level.
It is clear, however, that each of these paddings move us away from our “true north” of continually and structurally improving quality, delivery and cost. There is no impetus for teams to move into the right direction; their compass is distorted. Managers that try to help their teams like this, are actually not helping their teams at all.
Stress: No Point in Changing
The opposite situation also often occurs. Teams are confronted with sometimes sheer impossible targets. Their performance indicators continuously hover around in the red area of the graphs. Managers try to sell the aggressive targets as being ambitious and setting stretched goals. Managers see teams as their means to progress their careers and want to look good towards their superiors. Other arguments are that when they don’t set these bold targets, teams will not realize their potential; they will realize more, when targets are set further away. Typically, the relationship between managers and tteams will not be what it could be, putting it mildly…
But such targets are not without consequence. It may cause stress in the teams and negatively impact their behavior. In the beginning, they may still try to improve, but they soon get exhausted. They see no point in trying anymore. Motivation will suffer as seemingly nothing enables them to actually get into the green area. They are quickly irritated by suggestions from their colleagues and disqualify their ideas as being useless in trying to improve the situation.
Or teams try to hit their targets by disrespecting the rules of the game, i.e., the standards of the organization, or even act unethically. The quality of their decisions may actually suffer, moving the team away from their target instead of moving them closer. Or they will take intolerable risks, for instance related to safety. I don’t think this is the right way to create productive change either. So what then?
Tension: The Right Balance
I strongly believe in creating a certain level of tension in a team; a challenging environment in which performance criteria are sometimes met but not always. When managers see that targets are structurally met, as shown by the team’s indicators, they should challenge the situation and move the target a notch up. No indicator should always be green. For me, it signifies the absence of learning. When targets are never met, move the target closer to the actual voice of the process, and first reduce variability.
A second thing is that managers should always keep watch for suggestions that are not aligned with “true north” goals. As my boss and coach once said: “Rob, you can do whatever you want, as long as it shortens lead time. And while you’re doing that, just make sure you do it as cheap as possible.” It sounds easier than it is, but managers should develop the right reflexes in discussions with their teams.
Thirdly, try to accompany a challenge for the team with the offer to support and remove obstacles. As a manager, I think you have the right (and obligation) to push your team into areas where they have never been before, as this is where they will learn most and be productive at change. But at the same time, you should guide them, and help them remove obstacles on their way.
So, try and strike the right balance to create productive change. Peacefulness lacks the impetus for change. Stress, however, will stifle a team. It is tension, therefore, that we should seek. Just enough challenge to move a team forward without frustrating it. A delicate task for any manager, but those that are good at it, will be closer to being true Lean leaders I believe.