Visionary Leadership: Keys to a Successful Continuous Improvement Transformation

Posted by Roger Shrum on Apr 11, 2018 7:37:00 AM

Written by Roger Shrum, IMEC Regional Manager

In my work with manufacturers, I’ll encounter leaders who are frustrated with the slow pace of implementation of their continuous improvement programs.  They are concerned that they are not seeing the payback they were hoping for.  What I share with them is sometimes unsettling: Many enterprise-wide lean deployment programs become stalled because the top manager in the company has not clearly articulated his/her personal vision and committed to making it successful.


In one example, a company I was advising faced chronic late delivery problems, which jeopardized its reputation with longstanding customers and opened the door for its competitors to take business away.  The company was forced to work significant overtime and expedite production just to stay in the game. This company had a history of waiting for a downturn in business to shore up its delivery performance. Along the way, they “dabbled” in implementing lean methods, but as orders increased, a full lean implementation was shelved.  In retrospect, these well-meaning, busy leaders now realize that they may have missed an opportunity for significant growth by not positioning the company to adequately meet customer needs during the upside of the cycle.  

Any company that is truly ready to reap the maximum benefit of lean must properly orchestrate a lean transformation. Transformation of a company's social and cultural system requires extraordinary leadership as well as vision.  Without question, strong leadership is the one consistent factor that separates Lean winners from losers.  In tandem with leadership is vision. A successful implementation requires persistence.  Lean cannot be the “flavor of the month,” and the strategy and commitment to continuous improvement must be consistent during all phases of the business cycle. 

The approach: Strategy or Urgency?

The uncertainty of change is often more frightening than change itself. A Lean implementation is achievable whether a company has only a few employees or several thousand. The transformation process is occurring right now at various stages and degrees of urgency in organizations around the globe.

Business_success_smallThe key to success is to align the approach with the need. A “proactive” Lean Transformation approach stems from visionary leadership with a goal of propelling the company from a follower to a leader. It transforms it from one that benchmarks against other companies, to one whose practices are routinely benchmarked. This approach is highly controlled and involves minimal risk; everyone in the organization understands that Lean is a long term commitment.

On the other hand, there may be situations that dictate a true sense of urgency as a matter of survival. Obviously, this reactive approach is different and more painful to everyone. Tough decisions are required under pressure and in short time frames. Companies should avoid “crisis creation” solely to trump the case of becoming Lean.

Regardless of which approach is best for your company, honesty and trust coupled with strong communications must be ingrained into the culture of the organization. 

Considerations for transformation planning:

  • Avoid decision-making extremes, such as knee-jerk reactions, without the benefit of having all of the facts. On the flip side, avoid paralysis by analysis, which can stall or kill good ideas. This tactic is often used instead of a “no,” which does not lend itself to open and honest communication. A delay of action because of indecision or “penny pinching” could be more costly in the long term.
  • Consider the costs and risks associated with continuing “as is” and those associated with implementing change.
  • Involve those who must implement decisions in the decision-making process. Consider the ideas and opinions of those who do the work. They are in the trenches and will be change agents within the transformation. In addition, they’ll be more likely to support and own decisions they help contribute to.
  • Before an enterprise-wide lean implementation, ensure that your decisions are in alignment with organizational goals and values.
  • When announcing a decision, always explain the process by which it was made and the reasoning to support it. Explain scope, rewards and risks, timing and expected results to all who will be impacted.
  • Recognize the entire company team in communications. Avoid the pitfall of favoring top performers and minimizing the average performer. In general, most employees fall within the average category.
  • Don’t expect perfection, but stress continuous improvement.

Learn more about one organization's commitment to lean that drove results from new sales to employee engagement:

Access more keys to a successful continuous improvement transformation by visiting the following:

It's not their Fault - People vs. Processes

Roger Shrum

Written by Roger Shrum

Topics: leadership, lean, continuous improvement, process management

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