In my work with companies trying to transform into a Lean company, it continues to strike me how difficult they find it to sustain, or anchor, improvements in their daily work habits. The improvements that were suggested are well-meant, on-target, but still, they don’t seem to stick. I often see that the teams developing the suggestions as well as the organization as a whole are not always conscious of the context required in which change can truly root. Because of this, improved standards are quickly compromised, the organization returns to its previous habits and, as a result, performance doesn’t improve. It may even lead to increased skepticism towards future initiatives making it increasingly difficult to improve. What can organizations do about this? When talking about anchoring change, it is maybe interesting to try and learn from the captains and mates that actually anchor ships: six lessons from the sea.
1. Letting Go of the Anchor
When a ship releases the anchor, one of the first things that is required is that enough shackles and cable are provided to actually enable the anchor to hold. In an organization, any suggested improvement first and foremost needs to result in a standard, the anchor. Already here I notice that standards are not often defined or updated after improvements were proposed. And this standard needs to be sufficiently supported by those that will actually need to use the newly developed standard. This can only be the case when all shifts, areas and functions involved participated in developing and testing the standard and were properly trained. Only with this investment, standards will be able to hold. Most think that it’s all about the anchor. An anchor is important, but without enough shackles, no anchor will hold. Developing paper ideas in remote “war rooms” without passing the test of the operators and the gemba are doomed to fail.
2. Checking the Anchor
After the anchor was dropped and a sufficient number of shackles was deployed, the next thing to do is to check whether the anchor actually holds. By maneuvering the ship into different locations and by testing various conditions, the crew checks whether the anchor is actually holding. The same should go for the new standard. After the new and improved standard was put in place, the crew that was responsible for the standard should take the continued responsibility to provide intense support to those working with the standard on the gemba. In my experience, it is rare that the initially developed standard is not changed frequently after actually working with it. Unforeseen situations will always exist and it is almost impossible to be perfect at he first go. Therefore, you need to be there where the action is, see how the standard holds under various conditions, like a real anchor at sea.
3. The Anchor Watch
“Nothing is as changeable as the weather” is a well-known expression. A quiet and sunny day with southern winds may suddenly change into a late afternoon storm with western gusts of wind. Or the weather may change overnight, when all are asleep. Therefore, when anchoring in open water or in a bay, it is advisable to have an anchor watch in place. An anchor watch continuously oversees the weather and the conditions in order to be able to detect situations that require action. In an organization as well, an anchor watch should be in place. It is the role of visual management: to enable anyone of the crew at any time to detect situations that deviate from standard.
4. Autonomy of the Crew
Imagine the captain being woken up by the anchor watch for every minor event during the night. I don’t think he’ll be very happy with his crew. He’d expect more of them. He would expect more autonomy in reacting to the most common situations that could occur. But in order to be able to expect this from his crew he needs to train them in how to react. In Lean these are called standard reactions and typically part of a control plan. For every pre-defined situation that could occur (possibly identified through a process or pFMEA), a standard reaction should be available on the shop floor and the crew should be trained in applying them. I even consider a standard incomplete without the related standard reactions. And as was the case with the standard, the standard reactions should have been developed together with the crews and they should be trained in them. When standard reactions are missing for unforeseen situations, the standard reactions of course would be to wake up the captain!
5. Continual Improvement and Building a Capable Crew
Whenever the crew is confronted with out-of-standard situations (but effectively handled through a standard reaction), with unforeseen situations or when the situations escalates, a Lean captain and his mates would try and see how these situations can be prevented in the future. Out-of-standard situations were maybe under control but still required extra efforts from the anchor watch. And unforeseen situations led to the captain being required to intervene as no standard reaction was present. The captain should take responsibility to have the crew learn from these situations and together try and prevent these situations or, at least, define standard reactions when these are missing. This is the next “layer” in ensuring the anchor will hold, also in future situations. Problems, unforeseen situations and escalations need to be detected, recorded, shared, analyzed and ultimately lead to improved standards and a more complete set of standard reactions. When done properly, the anchoring will be continually improved and lead to ever-less problems… and more quiet nights.
6. Making a Round
A final “layer” that is present to ensure the anchor holds, is to regularly check upon whether the material is still in order, procedures are being followed, the crew is present and doing well and that everything is under control. Captain and mates will typically make regular rounds to check upon this. When deviations from standards are detected, they will try and find out what the reason is for the deviation and correct it together with the crew. They will also use the opportunity to either re-train the crew on the spot or learn from any issues there might be with the standard itself. In Lean this is better known as Leader Standard Work (LSW) or as Management Routines.
These conclude my six lessons from the sea that I apply in anchoring improvement. In many organizations, however, the first few steps of “anchoring” already often pose a problem. And when the first or maybe even first two steps are properly done, an autonomous anchor watch is often missing just like the captain and his mates making their rounds and building their crews on the basis of disciplined, rigorous and structured problem-solving. It’s maybe time to learn from the real captains and their mates at sea and apply these six lessons from the sea!