The (Human) Heart of Process Improvement

ComplicatedHeartsFolds - Version 2

I previously worked in the nonprofit sector developing young adult leaders, and understanding the mysterious human heart and coaching to each unique case were keys to gaining trust, motivation, and commitment. After much learning in this way, I had opportunity to lead a large and lengthy organization redesign. While the more technical operational activities of analyses, planning, and process improvements played to my strengths and eventually led me to Lean Six Sigma, I can never forget how essential were those delicate aspects of the heart. As we were working with volunteers in a culture almost entirely responsibility-based rather than authority-based, people had to be treated as partners and take full ownership to participate, or else they would tend to drop away. In this case, we were able to gain buy-in and hand over ownership, and those hearts caused the changes while, at the same time, the changes further fueled the hearts. With this background, my later discovery of Lean Six Sigma was a revelation. This is the essence of Lean Six Sigma methodologies, a two-sided nature of process improvement and personal empowerment. This duality must remain at the forefront of the work, because it is easy to over-focus on the process improvement tools and goals and underemphasize the human element.

This duality became readily apparent in a Black Belt project I led as an external consultant in which a number of interconnected processes were embedded within ONE person (she managed them from beginning to end with little documentation). It is one thing to get different perspectives and ideas for improvement from a process owner and numerous process operators; it is another task entirely to delve into the process steps and intricacies when they are hidden within one person who is not keen on such exposure. The fact that she was “suspect” (according to management) in the first place indicates a culture of blame, which may have been at the root of her standoffishness. Fortunately, I was able to reassure her, even vindicate her through the data, and she remained very helpful throughout the project. Rather than “elbow past her” in an authoritative way, granting her attention and respect went a long way to forming a partnership to work together towards a mutually acceptable goal.

Which brings me to a brilliant portion from John Shook’s Managing to Learn (2010), a highly recommended book on empowerment through A3 management:

“It took Sanderson [the senior manager] many years to accept that many of the so-called “problem people” in his plant were of his own doing. Occasionally there truly was a bad egg, but most issues for which he and others previously had wanted to point an accusatory finger–safety, quality, delays, waste in all forms–ultimately could be traced back to underperforming processes that were owned by management.

Sanderson knew that awakening Porter [his leadership protege] and others to this perspective was crucial in his quest to develop leaders in the plant. It isn’t only a matter of getting better results, but of putting people in positions to succeed and improve their own work based on well-designed, standardized processes.

Ironically, prior to Porter sharing the latest addition to his A3, Sanderson had pulled out a piece of crumpled paper with this quote [from Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho, 1997]: “We want to not only show respect to our people, the same way we want to show respect to everyone we meet in life, we also want to respect their humanity, what it is that makes us human, which is our ability to think and feel–we have to respect that humanity in the way we design the work, so that the work enables their very human characteristics to flourish.”

The foundation for this mindset is developing a no-blame culture in which problems are brought into the light of day and not hidden for fear of retribution or embarrassment. This was key to the culture within [the organization] of people looking at problems impersonally. Importantly, however, a culture of “no blame” did not mean a culture of accepting problems that repeat without investigation nor one that would tolerate excuses: no blame requires no excuses.” (pp. 52-54)

And Mark Dean addresses this “simple but powerful act of empowerment” in the introduction to¬†Healing Healthcare (2012), an excellent Lean Healthcare primer for senior managers who are unfamiliar with the Lean mindset:

“Lean fosters not only process improvement but, equally important, cultural transformation.

Lean focuses on improving the flow of patients through the system while also enhancing their care. It achieves these ends by empowering team members to objectively evaluate and improve their work processes. This simple but powerful act of empowerment has the added benefit of stimulating a cultural transformation from the bottom up. Thus, Lean and cultural transformation are two sides of the same coin. The act of empowering team members to improve their processes enables both the cultural transformation and process improvement.I learned a lot along the way. I am a much stronger and wiser leader for the struggle. [Some points of learning]:

  • Leadership is the key. What leaders should do is empower their people to improve processes to acheive excellent organizational performance.
  • It’s about the people and the process — together they provide patient care. It is truly through well-developed and empowered people that the best processes in support of patient care are developed and implemented.
  • Management owns the system, and is responsible for ensuring that the system works for the people; not against them. It is management’s job to eliminate barriers to success, allowing our people to be the best and most effective they can be.” (pp. x-xi)

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