When it comes to continuous improvement, solutions aren’t always as obvious as they may initially seem. Picture a long road with an access gate in the middle. Surrounding the gate is nothing but flat grass. People driving the road have two options: slow down and wait for the access gate to rise and let them pass, or go through the flat grass around the access gate. What do you think people choose?
If you think people chose to drive around the access gate, you’d be correct. This is because it’s nearly impossible to force people to use the access gate if they have a more accessible alternative. The same can be said for Lean management.
Let’s say that the leadership at a given company creates a new process for frontline workers to follow. However, managers report seeing their employees going around the process rather than following the new procedure to the letter. At this point, many leaders may reprimand the workers who bypass the new system. However, there are alternative choices the leaders can make, which may ultimately result in a more lucrative outcome.
Instead of approaching this situation with frustration or blame, it may benefit leaders to approach the situation with a sense of curiosity. If people on the front lines are finding ways around the new procedure, there is likely a good reason for doing so. Leaders may wish to ask questions such as:
- What is preventing you from following our new procedure?
- What is the benefit of going around the procedure?
- How does the workaround you’ve created make the process better/easier?
Include Frontline Workers Continuous Improvement Efforts
Approaching people with a genuine sense of curiosity invites them into the conversation. As the people working directly with the processes and procedures, frontline workers are a wellspring of knowledge. Including frontline workers in the process of developing continuous improvement strategies allows leaders to build more effective and efficient solutions. Allowing the people who do the work to create, or at least have a say in, the way work is done can drastically improve flow and work outcomes.
Encourage Support from Managers and Supervisors
Leaders at the top of a company or organization are uniquely positioned to model the type of leadership they want from middle management. For new processes and procedures to work well, they need to be adequately supported by everyone in the organization. Encouraging leaders to support their frontline workers can inspire people to become more innovative and productive in their roles. When managers and supervisors look for opportunities to improve alongside their workforce, everyone benefits.
Of course, there may come a time when the access gate needs to be heeded, regardless of a more straightforward workaround. Perhaps the new process or procedure is put in place for safety reasons or by new manufacturing regulations. Even in these cases, the strategies above still hold true. Asking curious questions, including frontline workers, and encouraging support from top to bottom will almost always produce strong and successful solutions.