Lean and Employee Engagement - Can they be Bedfellows?

Wednesday 1st November 2017

Can Lean and Employee Engagement get along, or is Lean straight from the dark side?

I’ve been an observer to some car crashes in my time - Lean programmes that you know are going to be filed in the bottom drawer, another candidate on the list of short lived change initiatives the minute the proverbial Elvis leaves the building. 

Cards on the table, I love Lean, I’m an advocate.  But I’m an advocate of progressive business models, creativity, joy at work, servant leadership.  How can this be?  There isn’t a Mr Hyde lurking deep in my pysche, I’m going to convince you the two philosophies are pleasant bedfellows. 

Argument 1 - Lean is just that, no fat.  A driver of efficiency, elimination of waste. At best this sounds insurmountably dull, at worst, lets be frank, it’s less resource - the harbinger of headcount reduction. 

The toolbox sounds so soulless too.  It’s about measuring, data, being objective, monitoring, standardisation.  You could paraphrase it as getting rid of anything superfluous to need; things like experimentation?  individualism?  laughter?  pudding?

I feel grey and shrivelled

Argument 2 -  The Voice of the Customer!  The foundation of lean - striving to only spend time on the things your customer values (waste all else is you know (geeky Yoda ref)).  This is the trumpet call to my little bit of maverick, permission to resist all things bureaucratic and nonsensical. 

What does the customer want?  Customers want their needs met in the most cost effective way.  But what do they LOVE?  They love sparkle.  Brand emotion.  Being surprised and delighted.

(Ooo note the coincidence here - this happens to be one of the outcomes of an engaged workforce)

And isn't this what we all love?  It feels good to know we have done something outstanding, thats made an impression, thats an expression of ourselves not a ubiquitous robotic transaction.

THIS is the true spirit of lean “Being obsessed by simplifying or eliminating tasks that do not serve the customer”,  oh and happen to make your own life easier.

And to answer the entirely reasonable accusation that heads go to the block as a result of all this elimination of duplication and paperwork - to point out the obvious that if you do the same thing for less cost, you’ll still become obsolete at some point.  It takes effort, and much flowing of juice, to evolve, remain relevant and ahead.  redeploy don't reduce doh.

How often do you hear people complain of not enough time in the day - firefighting and plates spinning rather than getting to the longer term projects, innovation and strategic thought.  Lean is for you!

So why do lean initiatives fail? - the same reason any change fails, it gets done to people, not by them.  At best you get compliance, but mostly you get rebellion, especially with us unwieldy Brits.

Crunch time - neither can be done without the other.  Lean cannot work without engaged employees - caring enough to spot the waste and do something about it.  And EE cannot happen without being able to solve your own problems, making your working life less frustrating and freeing up time to delight your customers.