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One of the reasons why an organisation has so much opportunity to improve, is because Managers are too far removed from the work. I see this in varying degrees when I visit a workplace.

In almost all cases, the more senior the manager, the less likely they know what actually happens. There is nothing more symptomatic of this than when you ask a front line staff member about a Senior Manager or Director and they say “I’ve never laid eyes on them before” or “I’ve worked here 7 years and never seen him walk through this floor”.

In some cases, even the lowest level manager (like a Team Leader) has no idea what their staff do.  Some of the processes we observe are obviously not efficient and in many instances, it simply comes down to the management team having no idea these activities are happening.

This is an example of a process I’ve observed, and I have also been the recipient of from both the public and private sector.

It’s the “letter-to-the-customer-saying-we-need-to-talk-to-you-so-can-you-please-call-us” process.

It begins with an issue of some sort. Often this is an automated payment that has failed. For me, it was having my credit card cancelled and re-issued by the bank: it goes like this:

  1. The organisation sees that the payment hasn’t been made, tries to take it again and it fails.
  2. So then they write a letter saying, ‘would you mind giving a call as we have a problem taking payment?’.
  3. Which is then printed and posted.
  4. The issue is diarised for review in 2 weeks. If customer hasn’t called we’ll send them another letter (this can go on and on and on at this point).
  5. At some point, the customer calls and provides new information. Problem is resolved.

Or we could see an issue, call the customer and resolve it.

In kicking off a Lean ‘Operational Excellence’ function, I often begin by taking all the Heads of Departments and the Head of Division to ‘walk the walk’. I won’t lie to you, I always pick some of the worst processes for them to watch. I walk them through the end-to-end process. So they sit in the call centre and listen to the call and see what the staff do. Then they watch the Administration area process the request. Then they watch the documentation being printed, enveloped and dispatched. Then they watch the information come back from the customer. Then they see what the administration area does with it.

Every time I do this, managers come away amazed by what is actually happening in their department. But something else happens too – they come away energised by what they saw and with a strong desire to fix issues.

There is a terrific quote attributed to Taiichi Ohno, the leader at Toyota credited with creating much of the Lean thinking we use today:

“Managers should be sufficiently engaged on the factory floor that they have to wash their hands at least 3 times a day”

Lean experts will call this a ‘Gemba walk’ but I prefer to call it ‘walking the walk’ (as opposed to just talking the talk). It also has the added benefit of having the senior managers be highly visible on the floor, something which may have never happened before.

This is a great way to give your lean activity a strong kick off and is a visible sign, an action that says the Senior Leadership team is taking this seriously.

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