lean thinking

The poor old middle managers get it both ways.

They’re a prime target for the senior people.

We’re on board, we’re walking the talk, but you can’t get them to buy in.  Always the weak link in the chain” says the director (at least in the CE’s presence).

And the front line staff aren’t usually too impressed either.

“They don’t communicate, they don’t understand what it’s like down here,” says the worker.

The truth is, it’s tough.  It can feel like you’re the meat in someone else’s sandwich.

Once upon a time there was an NHS [non-UK readers – National Health Service] trust that committed itself to the lean approach to improvement and did it the right way.

Unlike many, they realised it wasn’t just about efficiency and improving processes.  They understood it needed a change of culture too (see Footnotes).

They started by running a culture change workshop for their management team.  Like lots of these things it focussed on a before and after simulation of a work task, in this case building and delivering a large piece of capital equipment (one made out of string and sticks it has to be said).

They then ran the workshop in each of their directorates.

That’s when Mike, the property maintenance manager in the facilities directorate, got involved.

Maybe it was the nature of his work that made him see the point more easily than others (some of the medics in the trust were even trying to opt out of the whole process).

Mike came away from the workshop enthused and keen to apply what he’d learnt to the unplanned repair and maintenance that seemed an inevitable part of looking after a mixed bag of buildings of all ages on a number of sites.

But he was struggling with his own manager (who had different priorities) and his site supervisors (who hadn’t had the chance learn as he had).

He shared his concerns with the consultant who was helping the trust make their transformation.

The consultant was keen to get some early wins.  So they could see how all this worked in the real world, he suggested that Mike, some of his staff and his manager take a trip to the HQ and main distribution centre of a logistics company about 50 miles down the motorway.  Xyz Ltd (let’s call them) had a reputation for purpose and efficiency based on their application of lean principles.

There was some resistance to the proposal – “What can a hospital learn from a private sector company that distributes widgets?” was one of the comments – but Mike persevered and, arrangements with their hosts made, off they set in a hired mini-bus.

This is what they found

  • a spotlessly clean and tidy warehouse
  • purposeful work by a well-motivated welcoming workforce
  • charts and graphs on the workfloor showing the progress by the quarter hour of scheduled work
  • a group tackling a problem that had cropped up with what they called an A3 report (see Footnotes)
  • a new shift coming on sharing an update on the tasks for the day
  • a separate training room right next to the warehouse floor to teach people the new way of working (the company called it the University of the Shopfloor)
  • on the way out, two teams processing invoices, one traditional and unimproved, the other just getting into their stride with a new floor layout, display boards showing progress,  a new process eliminating blockages in their workflow, and significantly improved performance.

It was just what Mike needed to move his aspirations into reality.  The group came back buzzing with the purposefulness of what they’d seen, already discussing in the minibus how they were going to make their own transformation.

And the myth of the middle manager as the weak link in the chain took another small blow.


Culture.  The experts write volumes about work culture.  For me it’s the answer to the simple question “How do you do things around here?” – “You can’t break wind without signing a form” vs. “My boss dropped by yesterday to say ‘Thank you’”.  Both tell you more about the culture of those places than a book on the subject.

A3 reports.  A standardised report developed as part of the Toyota Production System showing on one piece of paper an overview and current state of the problem, a root cause analysis, proposed countermeasures, an implementation plan, the results, and future plans.


Not so long ago I saw the leader of a UK council quoted as saying that their chief executive’s post was to be advertised for the first time with a performance-related element and that he hoped to extend that eventually to the council’s whole workforce.

As a systems/lean thinking enthusiast my heart sank.

Politicians cannot be expected to have expert knowledge of every subject that impacts on their roles.

But who advises them?

Someone should tell the anonymous leader

  • the greater part of anyone’s performance is determined by the organisation’s systems not how hard or effectively they try to work as individuals
  • relating pay directly to supposed performance profoundly misunderstands the psychology of human motivation
  • it is in effect associating performance with punishment and reward rather than people’s intrinsic motivation to do their best
  • it is divisive and makes it difficult if not impossible to optimise the performance of the whole organisation as workers struggle to optimise their own position.

Maybe the new CE will take the leader on one side and explain quietly that this is not the way to get the best out of their employees.  I live in hope.

Is the concept of a mail room still alive?

It certainly was when I came across Jeannie.

She was the mail room supervisor for the HQ of a large unitary council, an office building with about 1,000 staff on site.  The mail room and the printing unit were both in the basement, and apart from any functional merit the location was nicely symbolic of their status in the organisation.

The mail room dealt with all the incoming and outgoing mail for the council and a couple of tenants they had in the building.  Apart from the routine flows it handled major postings produced by the printing unit like the 250,000+ annual council tax demands.

Jeannie approached me for some help in a pretty desperate mood.  She and her team’s self-esteem was about as low as it could get.  They saw their users as the enemy rather than their customers.  And Jeannie summarised the “enemy’s” perceptions of herself succinctly – “They call me the bitch in the basement”.

It wasn’t difficult to see how they’d reached this state.  For an hour in the morning and then again in the afternoon their workspace was heaving with irritated clerical staff from all over the building looking for mail expected but not arrived, hunting down their own incoming mail, complaining  that stuff had been placed in the wrong pigeon hole, demanding outgoing mail went first class, delivering un-notified trolley loads of outgoing mail minutes before the Royal Mail deadline.  It was chaotic.

Not surprisingly Jeannie was at her wits’ end.  She could only see the problems in terms of what “they” did and that was all about their inadequacies.

The first small battle won was to persuade her that the “enemy” were in fact customers, that without prejudging it what was probably wrong was how the work was done rather than the people, and – biggest challenge of all – that she had to work with those customers to improve things and provide a better service, which at the end of day was all she wanted.

After some discussion about who should be on the improvement team Jeannie and one of her people worked with three customer representatives over a period of some weeks to define and measure the problems, identify the root causes, brainstorm possible solutions and work out what should be done.

Jeannie was all for implementing the changes over one weekend, issuing an instruction to customer departments and then just using the new procedures.

I persuaded her that this wouldn’t work and proposed an open meeting with all the customers to discuss her team’s findings and get their buy in to the changes.  She was apprehensive about the response but said she’d be willing provided I presented what they’d found.

It took all my skills to convince her of the importance of her and her team presenting their conclusions.  I was a facilitator not an expert in her work.  With a lot of handholding she and her team agreed they’d each speak.

Come the day the customers were there in force including the middle age woman who, in our meticulous preparation, Jeannie had identified as “the one who’s going to cause trouble if anyone is”.  She sat in the middle of the front row, arms folded.  No visible response to anything that was said.

At last the presentation was complete.

“Any questions or comments?” asked Jeannie as agreed.

The trouble maker stirred.  “I’ve worked here seven years,” she said “and this is the first time anyone’s asked me what I think.  This is great.  I think we need to do it.”

The rest of the story hardly needs telling.  With the (ex-)trouble maker on side everyone else was equally positive.  Even better, they came up with another good idea (customers do) – a mail users group.

When the last customer left the room Jeannie and her mail room staff were as near to walking on air as I’ve seen people be.

The last I heard they were keeping up the basic measurements of performance they’d agreed with their customers.  And the user group had taken on a life of its own, most recently getting a police officer in to talk about security at a time when a number of animal rights groups were threatening public bodies with mail bombs.

And the mail room staff? – happy with their work, and delivering a great service.

How someone who was functionally illiterate could ever become a storeman in a housing depot was beyond Dan.

Dan was a facilitator charged with supporting teams in a large rural housing association to improve their own work.

The association had begun their improvement journey by identifying what the CE chose to call “critical business issues” that were clearly a problem.  The management team’s approach to prioritising action was fairly basic – if a senior manager thought there was a problem, that’s where they turned their attention.

To start with they’d concentrated on office-based processes – re-lets of vacant properties, rent arrears and recruitment.

It wasn’t too long before someone suggested they turn their attention to the operational side of the business – housing wardens and repairs and maintenance.  Both were part-unionised and there’d been some apprehension about the reaction of the workforce.

As often happens, one manager was more enthusiastic than others and the maintenance manager asked for some work to be done on stock control in his four widely dispersed depots.  He didn’t have the data to prove it but he was convinced they were carrying far too much stock.

Dan did a lot of preparatory work in setting up his first “manual workers” RIE – much more than the guidelines said.

He paid special attention to the make up of the team who would spend a week confirming the problems and resolving them.  He was adamant that the team include a clerical assistant, one of the craftsmen who used the depots as a base, and one of the storemen who received and issued stock.

George was the storeman nominated to join the team.

He’d been very quiet in the planning meeting two weeks before the RIE itself but that happened sometimes.  It often took a while for people not used to the genuine empowerment of the process to realise they really were free to come up with a solution that management would implement rather than challenge.

As usual, Monday morning of the RIE week was spent explaining the process the team would use.  By the lunch break Dan couldn’t help noticing that George was not only the one member of the team who was still silent but had sat most of the morning with his arms folded avoiding his gaze.  A regular Mister Grumpy in fact.

Dan managed to get one of the depot supervisors who joined them for lunch on one side.  “What’s wrong with George?” he asked. “Has the guy got a problem with me do you think?”

“Er,” the supervisor said, obviously embarrassed, “did no one tell you?  He can’t read or write.”

To say this was a challenge was an understatement.  Not only did it mean all the care Dan had given to the make up of the team had missed a fundamental problem but it now seemed impossible that George could participate on an equal basis.

The whole week was based on the team gathering information (much of it written), analysing the numbers involved, mapping the existing processes, drafting possible improvements and writing up the way ahead.  The room they were working in would be covered in flip chart paper and Post-it notes by Tuesday.

Dan’s first stroke of luck was that the supervisor knew one of the other team members – let’s call him Harry – was one of the few people in the organisation who was aware of George’s problem.  The second stroke of luck was that the week worked by team members dividing into pairs to investigate the potential problems and solutions.

So after Dan had a quiet word with Harry, that was why George was paired with him for the whole week.

Somehow it worked.  Using the excuse of seeing a depot in operation Dan went with them on one of their visits on the Tuesday, when the team were dispersed finding out the problems at the workplace.

The depot wasn’t George’s and surprisingly he turned out to be a dab hand at seeing and commenting on problems – where stock was located, the inefficient layout of the front desk, the health and safety hazards outside (put bluntly the depot was a tip), and much besides .  His powers of visual observation more than made up for his inability to write them down.

The upshot of the week was that on the Friday morning the team presented a cracking set of solutions to improve stock control.

They also urged management to tackle some other issues outside their remit they were concerned about.  One of these was the state of the depots George had graphically commented on during the Tuesday visits.  Dan had explained the 5S process to the team – what he called a sophisticated tidy up time [see my earlier blog post] – and they urged that this be tried.

Their manager responded positively and asked the team on the basis of their observations which depot should be done first.

To Dan’s amazement, George spoke up and volunteered his own depot for the pilot.  Dan was on the point of finding an excuse to suggest somewhere else when he pulled himself up.  Of course it could be done.  5S was a team activity and based significantly on trained observation of the work environment.

To cut a long story short the pilot worked well – pictures of a proud George in immaculate surroundings appeared on the housing association’s web site – and they went on to successfully “5S” the rest of their depots and offices.

What Dan never discovered was how George had managed to sustain a job for so long without being able to input data to the PC or read  stock lists and requisition forms.

Dave had just been appointed chief executive of a county council in, shall we say, the South of England.

He was an internal appointment.  He’d been a traditional director of finance, a safe pair of hands for a number of years but frankly not that inspiring.

If he hadn’t realised it himself, the leader of the council made it clear on day 1 that he was going to have to raise his game to meet his (the leader’s) aspirations.  It wasn’t wholly clear what those aspirations were except he’d worked in the private sector where things in his view were a whole heap better.

As it happens, a few days later the PA Dave had inherited was taking him through the incoming mail to steer him in the direction of things he ought to be doing.  She paused at an invitation from the local chamber of commerce to their annual leadership lecture.  It was, she suggested, a useful place to network with the great and the good from the county’s business community.

She didn’t bother to tell him who was giving the lecture so he was surprised on the night to find himself being addressed by the CEO of a motor components company with a not inconsiderable reputation for turning round this spin-off from the wreckage of the UK car industry.

Unexpectedly, he found himself inspired by a story of major achievement in an industry he’d thought dead and gone.  Despite the gap between making vehicle components and delivering public services he sensed there might be something in this that would allow the leader’s vague aspirations to be met.

Over drinks afterwards he asked the CEO where he should go to see this achievement at its best, fully expecting to be offered a tour of his own company.  Without hesitation, the CEO said “The Toyota plant in Derby”.

That wasn’t the answer he’d expected but to cut to the chase a trip was arranged and he spent the day in Derby being given an overview of the Toyota Production System and a look round the plant.

It took a while for the import of what he’d learned to sink in but when it did he had one of those “light bulb” moments when something clicks and the world is re-arranged for you forever.

The thing that did it was the famous (some said infamous) Toyota rule that anyone on the production line can stop it if they think there’s something wrong.

Like most of what had come out of Japan to improve work (beginning with Quality Circles) this was misinterpreted for a long time by those Brits who were aware of it – their reaction ranging from “It’s a con” through “They’re crazy” to “It’ll never work here.  The guys’ll be stopping the line all the time”.

Of course, what lay behind the headline was the philosophy of “Accept no errors.  Create no errors.  Pass no errors”.   The company expected the line to stop frequently when production of a new model was starting up and the system was learning. But it was hardly ever needed once production was flowing efficiently and effectively.

What Dave took from it was the empowerment and trust it implied, a million miles from the command-and-control and blame culture of British work.  And what’s more Toyota were doing this with people who’d come from traditional British industry and had a lot to unlearn.

Why couldn’t the same principle work in his council?

His first instinct was to employ experts to make the improvements needed.  But he’d been uneasy about the cost and perceptions of that.  At Toyota, everyone seemed to be an expert in improving their own work.  Now he realised what was needed was to provide people with the understanding and support to do that in the council.

What happened after that is another story, and a long one at that.  As he came to realise, and often said, “The good stuff is never easy”.

But it was that light bulb moment which was the first step on the never-ending journey of improvement.

Jasminder was the chief registrar (of births, deaths and marriages) in a northern industrial city.

Her council had suffered under an administration widely touted as incompetent.  A new administration had had a clear out of senior management.  The new chief executive was given two targets – the council tax had to come down and services had to get better.

The CE decided that continuous improvement was the way to do it and after some early struggles a training programme was put in place for middle managers.

Jasminder was one of those who “got it” – many didn’t.

She reflected on the service she provided.

At first it didn’t seem there was much scope for improvement.  Basic processes and targets were prescribed by law and carefully monitored.  The size of the market was fixed – she couldn’t increase the number of births, deaths or marriages.  Births and marriages were (usually) accompanied by much joy but there wasn’t much scope to delight the customer when a death was being registered.  And while her service had a monopoly on registration, the one area with some discretion about level of service – marriages – was in competition with many other venues, religious and secular.

She did what she’d been trained to do – get her staff together to explain the need to cut costs and improve services and the council’s new approach to improvement.  If anyone was going to do it, it had to be them.

They used the techniques she’d been taught to analyse the range of potential problems and collect some basic data about each.  One of her registrars suggested seeking customer views – something they’d never done before.  The biggest issue emerging was that the service, although competent, was not seen as a positive experience.  The whole place, at the back of the town hall, was dowdy and unwelcoming.  The marriage room was especially criticised.

With budgets tight there was no scope to bid for money to do the place up but again the improvement disciplines focussed their minds.  A brainstorm led to the idea that value could be added for wedding parties, which should increase income and allow the whole area to be refurbished.  One hitherto silent clerical assistant suggested doing up a small patch of ground outside that could be used for wedding photos.  A local florist was approached to replace the tacky plastic flowers in the wedding room with a welcoming spray in return for a discreet card advertising his services.

When I last visited the place had been transformed.  It was light, airy and welcoming.  Jasminder and her team had the data to show how the number of marriages (and income) had increased and were alert to trends which might suggest a problem.

But best of all there was a palpable buzz about the place.  The staff had taken ownership of the service and were clearly enjoying their work.

“That’s a bit pompous isn’t it – Redemption?  It’s only about improving work”

Well, by improvement I mean what I’ve meant in numerous posts on this blog – structured improvement of the sort variously known as systems thinking, lean thinking or kaizen (the aficionados will argue about the differences between the three and which is the true Holy Grail, but I’m not playing that game).

My trusty online Oxford dictionary defines redemption as

the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil

Perhaps being saved from sin pitches it a bit high.

But what I want to do in a short series of stories is tell how a range of very different people in public services had their work lives transformed by their involvement in structured activity that put them at the centre of improvement.

Not interventions by experts parachuted in to improve a process.  But genuine empowerment with support by managers (it doesn’t happen often enough).

At the moment I’m planning half a dozen examples.

Each will be written as a story.  Names, dates, locations and any other personal details will be changed because these are not the sort of cases where I can go back and ask everyone concerned if they are willing to be identified in public.

But the core of each story is true.

The first tale of redemption – the registrar’s tale – appears tomorrow and then, subject to other commitments, they’ll be posted at the rate of one a week with my reflections to follow in a final post.  Enjoy!

Oh, and comments welcome at any time.

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