Lean’s emphasis on making problems visible can sometimes be a double-edged sword. We can’t fix problems until we identify them, but it is also human nature (and the Achilles heel of traditional management) to ask, “Why was there a problem in the first place?” often in order to place blame.
Of course, we can ask that problem more productively, getting beyond blame in order to discover root causes: Why was there a problem? Why didn’t previous attempts to solve that problem work? How can we find a better, sustainable solution this time?
The People Who Do the Work Can Solve the Real Problems
A recent story about two KC employee teams, Fleet and Radio Communications, underscores importance of getting to root causes. As the linked article describes, the two teams struggled to work together for a decade before some frank conversations among both employees and supervisors led to some serious improvement in the work and the working relationships.
One reader justifiably asks why it took so long to fix.
We want to highlight the response from King County Deputy Director of Transportion Laurie Brown, as it emphasizes why Lean organizations engage frontline employees and rely on them as problem solvers and innovators.
“The dysfunction was addressed a number of times over the years. Things would somewhat improve for a period of time then would slowly but surely return to a state of dysfunction to the point of negatively impacting customer service. It wasn’t until we involved front-line employees in addressing the problem that we experienced sustainable improvement.
We learned [that] we needed to work on the problems in a deep and holistic manner. “Management” alone couldn’t make a comprehensive real change…the employee teams had to work it and own it. And their respective Unions needed to support the collaboration. I’m a true believer in the power of employee engagement and Labor-Management cooperation. The best part is that, in the end, the taxpayers win.”
“So should we have realized this earlier and used this approach earlier? Yes. However, learning how to do things differently isn’t easy work. What’s important is we’re learning. And we wanted to share what we learned in case it is helpful to other work groups facing similar challenges.”
Sustainable improvement depends on engaging the people who do the work. Top down “management fixes” might patch things up for a short time, but only the teams doing the work can develop sustainable approaches to continuously improve.
This is all the more true in lines of work that involve technology. A top down solution might work today, but technology changes rapidly. When employees are problem solvers, they can address those changes in real time, rather than managers saying, “Here we go again…Let’s form another committee.”