Transforming from the Inside Out

by Norbert Majerus

When I talk at conferences about leading a lean transformation, I like to ask the audience for the most important metrics they track in their organizations. I write down their answers, which range from lead time to cost to inventory. Then I ask: “What is the most difficult part in your transformation — changing the process or managing the people?” So far, the unanimous answer has always been that the people part is the most difficult. Many who have worked with advanced transformations also comment that managing people is the most important part.

With all in agreement about the challenges of managing people, I then review the metrics I wrote down and ask the audience why so few of them track a metric on the most difficult and important part of their transformation: managing the people.

Twelve years ago, I started the lean transformation in the three Goodyear innovation centers, thinking that when we got the process right we would be successful – after all, the process we were developing was very well documented and included TPS (Toyota Production System). But I quickly learned (by making many mistakes) that you have to get both the process and the people part right to be successful. Unfortunately, Toyota’s approach to people management is not as well documented or understood as TPS, but certainly no less important to the success of the Toyota Motor Corporation and other organizations.

A lean transformation is a major change in a company — far more difficult than a change in the organization’s structure or the implementation of a new computer system. Experienced change leaders do their homework to deeply understand the strengths and weaknesses of their organizations, and they make an effort get to know the people. Good change leaders will:

  • Ensure the support of the leaders to back upcoming changes
  • Educate both leaders and associates on process and behaviors
  • Communicate “why” the change is needed and how it will be accomplished
  • Establish a good vision with an end goal in mind
  • Develop supporting plans not only to reach the goal but also to sustain change
  • Manage the transformation in small steps, celebrating small successes and rethinking the plans after every lesson learned
  • Understand full well that lasting change requires a change in the company culture.

Experienced change leaders know that for a successful transformation nothing is more important than the engagement of everybody — associates and leadership. The people who do the work are in the best position to come up with recommendations for the necessary changes, especially if they understand the lean principles and how the correct application of the principles can lead to significant improvements.

Engagement starts with respect for people. Most people want to do a good job — mishaps are mostly caused by bad processes and inadequate equipment, not by the deliberate actions by the associates. People who are respected and appreciated for their knowledge and ability are more likely to use their knowledge and experience to suggest improvements and sustain the change.

At Goodyear R&D, we developed a four-step lean curriculum to help individuals become engaged as they learned and applied lean principles. Many eventually earned the equivalent of a lean green belt or black belt and served as teachers and coaches. The associates who drove the transformation were not outsiders, but individuals within Goodyear who had the respect of their colleagues. My role as the transformation leader was to coach and help them be successful.

Many transformation leaders blame a lack of leadership support for their lack of success. I learned that in a lean transformation leadership has to be engaged and change their behaviors just like everybody else. I learned that a change in behaviors leads to a change in beliefs.

Leadership needs to learn appropriate behaviors in a lean transformation, but it is hard to educate leaders in a classroom. I prefer to let leaders observe the right behaviors by visiting other companies that have achieved a successful transformation. It also helps to give leaders opportunities to learn, experiment, and practice in a safe environment. For example, I coach leaders on gemba walks where we look at visual management boards and metrics, and they learn to ask associates questions about their work. Eventually, leaders are comfortable to spend more time on the gemba and come to appreciate their new roles. As they learn and grow, they realize that their job is not to direct people and solve problems but to help everybody be successful and create problem solvers.

My experience is that at the beginning of a lean transformation, both change leaders and leadership usually have incorrect expectations. Many think that the transformation is a mere change in the organization and all it takes is a motivating leadership communication followed by an efficient plan. A successful lean implementation is not a drop-in fix; it takes a lot of effort and time. You’re transforming people, not just a process. Leadership must have patience, and change leaders often spend more time than anticipated dealing with setbacks and frustration. Only when the transformation leads to a culture change that can outlast several leadership transitions will it be judged successful.


Norbert Majerus will share his experience as a change leader in a workshop at the 31st Annual Shingo Conference in Covington, Kentucky, (near Cincinnati) from April 28 to May 3.

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