I was reading about March Madness shutting down when I received an SOS email from a plant manager. He had just shut down his plant for a couple of weeks and was concerned that much of the lean efforts could unravel as social distancing was incorporated into the work environment. Someone in this email string had shared how a Chinese company created an effective process to protect people with personal protection equipment (PPE) and also test everyone before they entered the plant every day. Good example, but not possible (yet) in most American plants.

A well-used phrase began percolate in my head: ”if the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”  It appears that all of us smart and productive lean consultants/authors/senseis didn’t do justice to our customers and teach them well. Otherwise, everyone would know what to do in this crisis within their robust and agile processes. If our customers aren’t prepared for seismic shifts impacting their companies, we didn’t do our job. We should have left you with the critical thinking behind these solutions.

It’s time for a course correction in our lean thinking, and social distancing can be the lever. Social distancing is just another way to keep workers safe that our process and system designs need to adapt to. I don’t see this as being in conflict with our lean thinking. So, how does this challenge your lean efforts? (I’m purposely not just saying “do it virtually,” as I don’t believe it’s always that easy (or best) for everyone to virtually do all the different tools/techniques we have implemented.)

Check your paradigms at the door and challenge these activities that rely on close social interaction:

What if you didn’t need to coach?  I’m betting that you’ve done a great job getting people to think critically about the gaps they see using one of several coaching techniques, so much so that the folks you coach know your technique, possibly even coaching themselves without your knowledge. Possible countermeasure: eliminate coaching or make it on-demand.

What if you turned your visual management upside down?  I’ve seen complex management boards (proudly taking weeks to put together) that take too long to review, expand without rigorous debate, or are difficult for the team to understand and react to. Maybe it’s time to really challenge what metrics you choose to visually manage and where to manage them. Possible countermeasure: Be deliberate about agreeing on both the metrics that support your strategic need for the next 18 months, and then find a better process in which they can be best managed.

What if you tossed out the current huddle process? I’ve seen too many that are simply status updates as opposed to discussing specific performance problems and countermeasures to get your processes back on track. Possible countermeasure: challenge the existing process in terms of not only purpose (e.g., status update vs. problem solving) but what, who, when, how often is part of these huddles.

What if you took out large chunks of leadership standard work? As an example, within leadership standard work, Gemba walks are highly revered. I’ve seen leadership not only walk the Gemba but coach the people and make suggestions for improvement. Suggestions for improvement should come from the workers based on data. Coaching should be from the person the folks directly report to. It’s time to put your own behavior on the line. Possible countermeasure: ask the people who are part of your Gemba walk what, if anything, is useful to them vs. what might be better. Put the immediate leaders in charge of coaching direct reports.

Everything you now do was designed as valid, safe solutions to solve specific problems, but they may need to be overhauled to keep our workers safe though social distancing. Now is the time to challenge and change the status quo, and you can begin by going back to basic lean thinking:

  • What problem, specifically, did each of these lean tools/techniques address/solve?
  • How much of the problem did you intend to solve (how much of the gap would you address) when originally incorporating this tool/technique?
  • How much of the problem did you actually solve vs. what was intended?  How can you prove this with data?
  • What is the current problem (gap) you now need to solve to move forward and keep your work environment safe and productive?

If your organization doesn’t have the appetite for major system overhaul, you can use the same basic thinking to design solutions on smaller scale, such as:

  • If you are currently four feet away from the next worker, how do you adapt to get two more feet?
  •  If you rely on huddles around visual boards, how do you solve the problem that huddles and visuals solve, but with social distancing in mind?
  • For the process handoffs that require social interacting, how do you reduce/minimize those handoffs?

Once you finished your reflection, share your thoughts and insights with all folks involved inside the processes which incorporate these tools/techniques to get their expert feedback, insights, and suggestions for improvement. When soliciting improvement ideas, I’ve found it useful to insist on at least three possibilities (including non-technical) to test for each change under consideration. Techniques I’ve used to put more ideas on the table, include asking everyone to write something down and share it or having sub-teams create independent lists and then sharing with all.

Once several good countermeasures have emerged, test each in pilots to see which might work the best given your specific context, workplace, and culture. Make sure you incorporate a valid way to measure and compare each of these countermeasures (quantitative or qualitative) as you are running experiments, which is the core of continuous improvement. You will eventually find a better way to keep workers safe (our real goal). Don’t forget about continuous improvement after implementation: revisit the process periodically to get continue to improve the process.

It’s time to dust off our learning and get busy adapting to new conditions. Social distancing may be the lever we needed to challenge our organizations to reflect in order to change our trajectories to a more robust and agile organization. Use this unique time and opportunity to challenge your comfort in the existing tools/techniques. Leverage your great human resources to work your way out of paradigms and become the robust and agile organization you need to be to survive and flourish in future crises. March Madness can’t adapt for 2020 and is gone for now, but lean provides a way to adapt quickly that will keep you on track and your organization humming. Good luck to all!

Beau Keyte has three decades of continuous improvement experience, which have enabled him be a good listener, teacher, coach and leader as he helps organizations succeed and grow. In addition to his consulting practice, he is on the adjunct faculty at the Lean Enterprise Institute, the Shingo Institute and the University of Dayton.

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