Lean Transformations Group

Take Your Lean Organization to the Next Level with a Few Simple Questions

I've talked with several leaders recently from companies who have been successful at adopting lean principles and practices in their organizations. They are mostly pleased with the team engagement and performance improvements they have achieved, but they are also looking for that next big step. They want to know what they can do to take their organization to the next level.

Most highly developed lean organizations have put significant energy and cost into their transformation. Most have invested in training, used external consultants, and developed an internal continuous improvement group to spread the policies and practices. The primary focus has been on lean tools, lean metrics, and ways to get all the functions to adopt Lean. There is significant variation across organizations and companies that have adopted Lean, which makes the starting point for improvement hard to define. However, we've found that in general, there are a few gaps that need to be examined to make the leap to the next level.

Some of the most common lean learning gaps are:

  • Clarity around connecting lean thinking and practice to the critical business problems
  • The lack of a value stream thinking to deliver value to external customers
  • Variation in processes for problem solving at all levels
  • The bad habit of thinking in terms of solutions instead of thinking in terms of problems to solve
  • Developing the discipline of PDCA learning cycles
  • Leadership’s understanding of their role in developing a problem solving culture
  • Building trust across the organization
  • Accelerating personal and organizational learning for the larger purpose of addressing the complex problems in today’s businesses.

This article is for leaders who want to move from their highly developed lean organization to a supercharged learning organization.

Here is a simple approach you can take to leverage your current work processes and begin to inject some thinking that will move your team into deeper learning. As a leader, you can begin this transformation by asking your team members just a few open-ended questions during regular (monthly) reviews. I am assuming here that the concept of PDCA is already understood and in use in your organization. If indeed this is true, here is a model that Lean Transformations Group has developed to keep the focus on learning through reflection by thinking about three concurrent PDCA learning cycles. This model can help guide your interactions with your teams, moving the entire organization to the next level.

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PDCA level 1: Build a Framework for Problem Solving

The foundation for learning is at the work processes of the value creators. PDCA learning cycles are used here to engage the value creators in effective problem solving. The focus is on the value stream and the delivery of value to the external customer. Problems are defined at the output of the value stream where the product or service is delivered to the external customer. The typical metrics are quality, cost, or timing. Clear objectives are set to make improvements. Teams are cross-functional and work together to improve the delivery. They understand their value stream and the importance of flow. They have a disciplined process for creating monthly plans, and they understand how to use experiments for learning as well as the importance of the PDCA learning cycle.

PDCA level 2: Grow Respectful Social Connections

At the second level, the focus is on developing trusting relationships throughout the organization based on mutual respect. Team members understand the concepts of using open-ended questions and how humble inquiry is critical in moving conversations to open and transparent dialogue. People understand that dialogue is the only form of communication that builds trust and they are also aware where they may be building resistance either through debate or dictation.

PDCA level 3: Accelerate Organizational Learning

The only real competitive advantage that companies can have is to learn what it means to provide value to external customers at a much faster rate than their competitors. This requires learning about the marketplace, customers, delivery performance, flow, value stream improvement, effective problem solving, and respectful social connections. It also requires a recognition that each employee has her own needs for achieving personal goals and that skills for improving organizational learning are really the same skills needed for personal growth. In addition, it requires understanding the limits of growth that are imposed by the organization's current policies and procedures. There should be a regular way of assessing if your organization is learning faster each month and if it is continuously improving the learning process for team members.

Next Steps

If you haven't been thinking about your lean journey using this kind of model, that’s ok because much of this will become clearer if you take just two steps toward moving to the next level.

1) Make sure your review meetings are a part of the PDCA learning cycle, and

2) During review meetings, ask open-ended questions based on these three concurrent learning cycles.

If you take the time to slow down and regularly reflect on and ask these questions, you will begin to make the transformation to the supercharged learning organization.

Leaders, I recommend you begin running some simple experiments of creating monthly reflections sessions with a few of your more highly developed teams. First, let’s explore a good agenda for your monthly reviews. Of course, it’s based on a PDCA learning cycle!

Make your regular review meetings a part of the PDCA learning cycle

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Notice that the reflection part of the PDCA learning cycle, C-A-P, is included in this monthly review meeting. The DO part of PDCA is the team executing the plan between review meetings using a detailed plan created by the team.

Make your questions based on improving organizational learning

Here are some questions focused on the three concurrent PDCA Learning cycles.

PDCA level 1 – Build a Framework for Problem Solving

  1. What have you learned about the problem gap at the delivery point?
  2. What have you learned about your value stream and importance of flow?
  3. What have you learned about your problem-solving process?
  4. What have you learned about setting up experiments for learning?
  5. What have you learned about your policies and procedures that inhibit flow?
  6. What have you learned about the metrics for continuous improvement?

PDCA level 2 – Grow Respectful Social Connections

  1. What have you learned about selecting the next, most significant practice areas for building trust in your teams and across functions?
  2. What have you observed about your ability to change personal habits for humble inquiry and dialogue?
  3. What have you learned about the “metrics” of trust and respect?

PDCA level 3 - Accelerate Organizational Learning

  1. What have you learned about your ability to standardize and maintain PDCA learning cycles?
  2. What have you learned about selecting the most important questions to ask?
  3. What have you learned about who to engage in the team’s learning?
  4. What have you learned about the metrics of learning? 

Please don't attempt to ask all of these questions in your first experiment using open-ended questions in review meetings. Select just the few, critical questions from each level that will make sense to you and your organization NOW. 

It’s hard work, but as I remind clients, please remember that growing learning is a slow, careful process. Over time, you and your team will indeed become more skilled in each of the areas and you will experience a fully engaged, proactive, and enthusiastic organization, all working at delivering greater value to your customers.

Significantly improving your
operational performance.

Contact us to learn more