Where to Focus – Executives, Managers, or Frontline?

July 24, 2009


In a Lean or Continuous Improvement Transformation, who is the most important – The Executives, the Middle Managers, or the Frontline workers?

This question often gets asked by many who are trying to understand how to roll out a Lean / Continuous Improvement program (or Six Sigma deployment, etc.).  Some will say the work is done on the frontline, the gemba, so the frontline people are the most important, and should get the most focus.  Others will say the Executives must be on board for a successful transformation, so we need to focus on getting executive buy-in.  Even others will say, no wait, no one ever really considers more than a cursory glance at the middle managers.  So here’s a word of caution – don’t forget the middle managers.

Many organizations start the implementation of a Lean/CI effort with big announcements proclaiming the benefits of this approach, and that everyone will be trained on the new techniques.  It typically starts with the Executives to make sure they are on board; after all, they can kill the program through restricting funding, not releasing resources, etc.  During these executive overview sessions, a training plan is usually developed starting with the frontline workforce – since they are the ones who make things happen.  There is a big push from the executives to see action since it is fresh in their minds and it is costing them “a fortune”, so they want results.  To accomplish this quickly, experts are brought in to help with projects and deployment, and the middle managers are given cursory overview at this time – they will be trained in detail later.  These deployments are typically successful, and show excellent results.  The executives, though happy with the progress, eventually start looking for ways to cut costs, and determine that since there is so much success, the training program can be cut back.  After all, they reason, the middle managers already received the overview training (like them), and they don’t need the details like the frontline workforce.  The training budget is cut, and the middle managers continue on to struggle (often silently) with the transformation.

Over time, the use of the experts is cut back as the executives feel the organization is progressing nicely on its journey, and the middle managers are expected to pick up the slack.  Since the middle managers were not trained in the specifics of some of the tools & techniques, they do not fully understand how to use them, and they are either misapplied, or, because the mangers were never fully engaged (the experts facilitated the effort), they resort back to their traditional management mode – their comfort zone.  Continuous Improvement efforts start to become not so continuous.  The executives reason that this CI stuff was a nice experiment, and although there were some nice results, they just read about the next new thing, so they’re going to try that.  The frontline feels betrayed, and the middle managers continue to muddle through their day.

Having lived through a situation like this, it is not fun.  To see the potential of an organization slip away is extremely frustrating.

Unfortunately, this happens more often than we would like, and on varying scales (sometimes it’s an organizational wide effort, sometimes it’s simply inside a large department).  The key to stopping it from happening is to fully understand, up front, what you are getting in to.  Lean and other Continuous Improvement efforts are more about cultural and organizational change than they are the tools.  It takes time (and investment) to transform from the traditional way of doing things to a Lean mindset.  The investment is primarily in people, and it is a long term investment, not just something to do this year to improve the bottom line.  To think otherwise is a recipe for failure.

So back to the question of who is more important – to me, the answer is they are all important; their relative importance depends on what stage the organization is in its journey.  In the beginning, executive sponsorship is absolutely critical.  Giving middle management an overview then providing details to the frontline workforce is essential during rollout.  Then to sustain, it is imperative to provide middle management the training they need to make sure it becomes the way you do things, and not just another “flavor of the month.”

Last, but definitely not least – don’t forget the ongoing training and education as employees come and go to the organization and as new tools and techniques are refined and improved.  This is often neglected, or worse, knowingly dismissed due to cost issues.  It almost always comes back to bite you later.

Let me know your thoughts!

Glenn Whitfield

Understand the Outcomes, then Focus on the Inputs

July 13, 2009


The recent and ongoing debate on Healthcare highlights a problem that is prevalent throughout organizations, governments, and society in general.  The problem is with the thinking process, or should I say, lack of a thinking process, and an almost myopic and emotional focus on addressing only the outcomes of a process.

In Healthcare, we are constantly told that the “system” is broken, it doesn’t meet the needs of patients, and there are too many people who can’t afford healthcare.  People not being able to afford healthcare is a problem, so, as some are presenting, the solution is to provide those people with health insurance (the mechanism which they receive it doesn’t matter), then we will have solved the problem of people not being able to afford healthcare.  But what does this solution really solve?  What is being done to drive the costs of healthcare down?  What is being done to improve the quality of the delivery of healthcare to better meet the needs of the patient?  What is being done to fix the broken “system”? And it is broken.

The issue is the solution proposed does not address the reasons as to why people can’t afford healthcare.  Lack of insurance may be one of the reasons, but it’s certainly not the only reason, just maybe the easiest reason to address to a frustrated public that wants to see “results.”  The problem is that to truly address the reasons healthcare is unaffordable means we need to dive into the system and determine what is driving costs from the moment a patient enters a physician office (or earlier) until they settle their bill (which may be covered by insurance).  If the output is unaffordable care, we need to focus on the inputs that are driving these outputs.  Healthcare is a very complex model, with physicians, providers, insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and medical device suppliers all functioning as independent groups (often times, required by law to do so).  To fix the outcome of our current system, we need to focus on the inputs these entities provide and the interrelations that exist.

Years ago in manufacturing, when an organization had quality problems, the solution was to simply put more quality inspectors in to monitor the product.  Well as anyone who’s been involved in manufacturing knows, “you can’t inspect quality into a product.”  Organizations that tried this quickly found it was unaffordable and not sustainable – they had to go fix the inputs of the process to truly improve and sustain quality.  The logic has nearly universal application, whether it’s manufacturing, healthcare, technology, etc. : to fix the outcome, focus on (control) the input.

The outcomes of a process are very important, and measure how effective the process is performing, but if one wants to improve the process, it is the inputs that must be addressed.

Let me know your thoughts!

Glenn Whtifield