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A Key Building Block for Successfully Implementing Lean/World-Class Value Stream Management: Communications

July 3, 2017

A Key Building Block for Successfully Implementing Lean

If you have been following this department through the year thus far, you are now likely wondering about some of the basics that need to be in place. Let’s assume you are at the beginning or re-starting the process of implementing lean/world-class manufacturing. John Kotter, in Leading Change, suggests that the top five prerequisites for effecting any kind of major change are, in order:

  • Establishing a Sense of Urgency (and Top Management Commitment)
  • Creating the Guiding Coalition (of Key Stakeholders)
  • Developing a Vision and Strategy
  • Communicating the Change Vision (an Effective Communication Plan)
  • Employee Empowerment for Broad-Based Action

For the moment, let’s assume that top management is committed, and the guiding coalition made up of the stakeholders is ready to go. A vision and strategy are next. In the last Lean Culture department article (June 2003), I suggested Value Stream Mapping as a vehicle to set a vision and roadmap for implementation (the strategy). Let’s examine the last two elements: An Effective Communications Plan and Empowerment. This article is focused on the former–we will examine Empowerment more closely in the next installment of Lean Culture.

An Effective Communications Plan

The operative word here is effective. Just formulating a comprehensive communications plan is no guarantee that it will be effective. A very careful assessment of the current communications gaps in your organization is essential. Once these gaps are clearly articulated, a set of specific countermeasures must be set and acted upon in the plan with built-in “gut checks” to establish effectiveness.

During the initial training of a real company’s (identity concealed) employees, the question was asked, “What are the barriers to success in implementing world-class manufacturing here at XXX?” Let us examine some of these barriers that are, in fact, communications gaps as they are perceived by both the supervisors and the hourly employees with suggested countermeasures. Remember, perceived gaps are just as critical and deadly as real gaps. I have added a notation that differentiates between the two; however, the countermeasure actions in both cases must receive the same emphasis and effort to ensure success. The table below summarizes the gaps and countermeasures this company faces:

Communications Gap: Real or Perceived Countermeasure(s):
“Management will not spend the money to get this done.”


Probable root cause: Management has launched “unfunded mandates” in the past.

Perceived The reason I say this is really a perceived communications gap is that launching a lean/world-class initiative is obviously foolhardy if the necessary funding to make it happen is not available. However, people do believe the company is not really going to support the implementation.


1. Demonstrate to the workforce that this is not an issue by publishing training schedules and budgeted spending to support team activities at the onset of the implementation. People will quickly realize this barrier is under control.


2. Ensure initial implementation actions create visible, physical change. Buying and putting in place supplies like brooms and dustpans to support initial 5S efforts is a good way to start.

“Supervisors and middle managers will never let us implement lean/world-class manufacturing.”


Probable root causes:

1. As in most companies, virtually all of the middle managers and supervisors have been promoted up through the ranks over the last 25 years. The only way they know is the old one. No one is more invested in the current structure than
they are.


2. Additionally, they have not been trained or given incentives to practice team building and empowerment.



Real and Perceived One of the top four reasons cited for failing in the implementation of lean/world-class manufacturing is resistance from middle management.


1. Provide specific training for managers and supervisors in learning new roles as facilitators and leaders.

2. Answer the “WIIFM” question: “What’s in it for me” for supervisors and managers. Make it clear that they are desperately needed in the future to help the company improve by breaking roadblocks, training and empowering people. Spend extra time and energy making sure they understand how they are part of the bigger picture going forward.

3. Assuming a no-layout policy, due to continuous improvement, is in place, be prepared with value-add roles for surplus people at all levels, such as value-stream managers, customer advocates, field support, cross-training development, safety improvement programs and manufacturing liaisons for new product/service development.


“Non-participation will not be allowed by management. Allowing anyone to opt out of participation will send the message that we are not serious.”


Probable root cause: Failure of management in the past to exercise discipline and follow through (remember “quality circles?”).

Real Non-verbal signals are always more powerful than verbal ones. If anyone is allowed to avoid participation, most people will take this as a clear communication that “business as usual” is alive and well.


1. The guiding coalition must agree that the message to everyone is: “Participation is MANDATORY.”

2. Lead by example, starting with top managers, the guiding coalition members and then managers, supervisors and everyone else.

3. Conduct special ancillary training for managers and supervisors in communications, running effective meetings and facilitation skills.

4. Require all employees to eventually participate on a kaizen (continuous improvement event) team.

5. Make sure people fully understand what we expect and need them to do, and require they do it (and appropriately confront them if they are not following team standards).

Language barriers–especially English versus Spanish.


Probable root cause:

Ninety-five percent (95%) of the supervisors and managers are English speakers, and 90% of the hourly workers speak Spanish.


Real 1. All written information and meetings must be bilingual. Implement visual standardized work everywhere, in both English and Spanish.


2. Free “Spanish for English speakers” classes will be a mandated requirement to be a supervisor or manager in this company moving forward. Keep track of who has attended and their competency levels.


3. Free “English for Spanish speakers” classes are being sponsored for all employees at no cost.
It is being made clear that advancement requires proficiency in both languages.

Finally, a specific set of actions that will occur to implement each agreed-upon countermeasure should be clearly spelled out in the Guiding Coalition’s Communication Plan. This must include responsible names and due dates. Part of the standing agenda must include a review of the effectiveness of the communications plan. In the guiding coalition meetings, the members must anecdotally share the mood and level of morale and attitudes. Steady improvement is expected. If things are not improving–both morale and financial metrics–it is a clear sign that one or more of the five Kotter prerequisites are in trouble. More focus on existing countermeasures and possibly new ones are required to get back on track.


About Ron Crabtree

Ron Crabtree, President of MetaOps, Inc., is an organizational transformation coach/trainer, operational excellence (OpEx) adjunct facilitator at Villanova University, Lean and Six Sigma (LSS) speaker, author and thought leader in business process improvement/re-engineering (BPI/BPR). He is a consultant to private industry and government agencies in supply chain management, design of experiments (DOE), statistical process control (SPC), advanced quality systems (AQS), program evaluation review technique (PERT), enterprise resource planning (ERP), demand flow, theory of constraints, organizational change management, and value stream/process mapping and management. Ron has a BA in Management and Organizational Development, is a Master LSS Black Belt, and is Certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM), Integrated Resource Management (CIRM), and Supply Chain Professional (CSCP) by American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS). If you are an executive and would like to chat with Ron about anything related to business process improvement and operational excellence, please get on his calendar here:

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