The modern business environment is often described as “VUCA”: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. To meet these challenges, building organisations that can learn, develop and transform becomes more and more important on a daily basis. Establishing competitive operating systems, inclusive of continuous improvement, is crucial to whether an organisation succeeds or fails, writes Troy Taylor.

It is commonly understood by Lean and TPS practitioners that Toyota’s own production system (the father of Lean) is a product of both Continuous Improvement and Respect for People. Most also understand that within this pair lie five guiding principles: Challenge, Kaizen (Improvement), Genchi Genbutsu (Go and See), Respect and Teamwork. Why then is it so difficult to achieve success?

There are so many books and articles on this topic that you would have thought it would be relatively simple by now to read the material and just follow the instructions therein (even with some adaptation for organisational nuances). Unfortunately, it is not quite so simple.

Much of the writing today only describes the theory of strategy, never really delving deeper into how the necessary (seemingly mythical) mindset required for success manifests itself in practical terms. For example, ask any Lean practitioner, guru, sensei or consultant what the foundations of Lean are, and most will start reeling off at least part of the Lean stability toolset: 5S, standard work, Visual management, TPM and so on. These things are an essential foundation on which an organisation can begin to build a much stronger system, but they are not fundamental to an operating system’s success, longevity and/or sustainability. That requires something much deeper.

So what are the fundamentals?

Continuous improvement

  1. A long-term plan exists for the future of the organisation.
  2. The current state is continually challenged.
  3. Challenges to the current state are focused on process rather than people
  4. Problem-solving is habitual across the organisation.

Respect for people

  1. Mutual trust exists throughout the organisation.
  2. Mutual responsibility exists throughout the organisation.
  3. The organisation demonstrates its commitment to the economy and society in which it operates.
  4. There is a demonstrable commitment of the organisation to invest in the development of its people.
  5. Challenges to the current state are accepted positively.

These fundamentals are not stand-alone elements, but parts of a larger, complex system, each with their own set of conditions and behaviours that must be met or developed in order to achieve them.

At this point it is interesting to note that for decades, businesses globally have been spruiking that “our people are our most important asset” and that the fundamentals are all about people, but these fundamentals are scarce to non-existent (or at least poorly interpreted) across many industries in which I have worked. As an organisation, success is all about open and honest communication, collaboration and alignment to the biggest picture.

So how do you begin to develop the fundamentals?

  • Understand the purpose of your people – What makes them do what they do? This is not about money and never will be; it’s about understanding why your people come to work each day, why they chose the profession in which they work today.
  • Consider a long-term vision and goals – This not only speaks to your people but to the community in which you operate.
  • Make achievement towards the vision visible – Develop key performance and behavioural indicators that cascade through all levels of the organisation. Have these displayed in critical areas of the business so that communication around them can be challenged openly and honestly.
  • Engage your people in achieving that vision – Create a simple, accessible process for continuous improvement and raising ideas. Ensure that the organisation has a structure that will allow for continuous improvement activity. Toyota adopt a 1:4 ratio to facilitate this: one manager to four reports at all levels across the business. This may not be the right answer for your organisation, but having 12-plus people report to one manager will never liberate time for improvement activity and your improvement efforts will always be a struggle. Once continuous improvement begins to happen intrinsically/organically it will become a positive influence on the organisation, liberating more time for growth and further improvement. (For further reading I recommend learning about David Rocks SCARF model to understand how to positively engage with your people.)

A previous client of mine took the time to develop an organisational mantra of “to advance humanity, inspire curiosity”. Bearing in mind this was a bio tech business full of scientists, it just spoke personally to each of the organisation’s people. A long-term goal was also created for the business, which was made visible. The goal was to increase his organisation’s current revenue stream in order to:

  1. Liberate the CEO from the current business so he could grow it geographically. This would mean developing staff to fit into a new future structure, a prospect worth working for by all accounts.
  2. Branch out and invest into new areas of biological science. What self-respecting scientist wouldn’t want to be in on this?

The result was that the organisation has aligned, there is open and honest communication across all areas of the business, problem-solving began in earnest and continues on a daily basis, and a Lean mindset has been adopted as each person within the business works collaboratively to reach both their personal and organisational goals. The client has increased revenue and is about to embark on a new venture in the US, the CEO is well recognised and respected in Lean circles, and the organisation has achieved breakthroughs in its industry that has led to it being recognised as the leader in its field.

This article only brushes the surface of what the introduction of the fundamentals entails, the work that is involved and the results that can be achieved. If you would like to know more then please feel free to contact me.

Troy Taylor is a Lean specialist of more than 20 years; he was trained in the Toyota Production System by Toyota’s own Japanese Lean sensei, whilst bringing a new plant online for vehicle supply to Europe. You can contact Troy at