Why Is It So Tough to Be Lean in a Relationship-centric Organization?

Relationship-centric organizations rely on personal networks and channels to get things done. These networks develop organically based on personalities, individual tendencies and the almost universal desire to avoid conflict.

In relationship-centric places, value streams flow along the path of least resistance. As processes are run, priorities are set and problems solved in a quid-pro-quo environment that attempts to minimize conflict. Here by definition, the optimal path is the one that causes the least friction. This always seeking-to-minimize-conflict to get things done is sometimes viewed as a strength. One will hear: “We’re great at problem-solving.” In reality, this approach is a hindrance for any business that wants to improve.

The Lean enterprise is process-centric. It seeks to understand process parameters first and then look objectively at performance. Here processes – not relationships – are meant to be optimized. People’s feelings, subjective by their very nature, are not a major part of the equation. Good performance and bad performance are simply metrics on a scale. In process-centric organizations, pointing out problems isn’t an attack on an individual or function, it’s an objective way to identify opportunities to improve.

It’s difficult to switch between the two. Relationship-centric organizations are conditioned to minimize problems that expose “my people”. Individuals gain status and their ability to perform by integrating into the network and getting along with others. Conflict isn’t constructive because it saps people’s energy and doesn’t really lead to solutions. The networks that enable work are not always obvious yet they tend to be stronger than any org chart. Changing to a new system that has a bias-for-process – something that transcends heroes and administrators – is a threat.

The status quo is strong. It’s aligned with human nature where avoiding conflict is a survival mechanism. It’s impossible to simply tell an organization to make the switch. This change is one of the hardest endeavors any organization ever pursues. It takes tremendous strength of leadership, patience, coaching and tactical implementation. But it’s doable and worth it – it’s just going to take more work, more time and greater discipline than you might initially think. In the change game, sustainability comes from endurance.

> Relationship-centric organizations are particularly susceptible to high turnover. When key people leave, they take with them their piece of the puzzle – one that isn’t on a process map or org chart.

> Process-centric organizations honor mistakes and problems because they are easily plugged into a constructive problem-solving mechanism.

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Three OpEx Questions and Answers

A small group recently posed a few questions to us about Operational Excellence, leadership and change. They were looking to get started on their journey and wanted to understand our perspective on some of the critical elements. Here’s a recap of the ensuing discussion with OpEx questions and answers. If you’ve got some questions about OpEx, send us a note (hit the Contact button and start the discussion there). With a dialogue like this, we all learn something.

Q. Leaders mostly understand the benefit of engagement and often see OpEx as a way to obtain this, yet it seems that leaders are not well equipped to make this happen. In fact, the training for leaders is often ineffective. How do we overcome this gap?

A. The graph below is sourced from our YE16 OpEx survey report. It shows how the surveyed organizations ranked the effectiveness of training at various levels of the organization and across a variety of business types:

Graph that answers the opex question related to how different levels of the organization view operational excellence success.

Img 1 – The relative effectiveness of OpEx and Engagement Training at different levels of the organization. It’s notable that training is deemed most effective at the lowest levels of the organization while executive level training is deemed effective only about 50% of the time.

We can all see the connection between better engagement scores and improved performance, however there is a lot of confusion about what good engagement looks like. Often engagement is thought to be more frequent face time between bosses and subordinates, 360 feedback, suggestion programs, and so on. Rather, good engagement is about giving people the ability to directly influence their work. It recognizes basic human needs that include the power to make decisions, the ability to control outcomes and being part of something bigger. These attributes are not naturally occurring in many work environments so equipping leaders to enable OpEx is about training and coaching them on the essential actions and behaviors they must take to engage and align the organization from top to bottom.

Our approach to ensuring effective leadership training starts with the Managers / Executive Lean Overview workshops. These sessions quickly inform the team with a common vocabulary, awareness and understanding of:

  • Lean concepts and the Lean enterprise
  • Developing the right culture, structure and behaviors to support Lean
  • Managing resistance to uncertainty, and
  • Driving measurable results linked to the business strategy and objectives

Tools and methods are covered, but gaining expert capability on them is not specifically intended. Rather, this portion of the workshop is meant to provide context for how front line practitioners apply problem-solving tools to achieve desired business outcomes.

Our primary objective with leaders and managers is to provide insights that help them define and  develop their own leader standard work. This means doing the hard work of changing some of their own behaviors and habits to be able to actively coach and demonstrate support for Lean to the organization as implementation begins.

Beyond training and workshops, coaching is an important element that we always employ during project work with clients. Coaching is about observing behaviors and suggesting alternatives that can be more effective at delivering certain results. A simple example: If you want people to be more engaged, ask leading questions as opposed to prescribing a potentially ill-conceived solution. In this way, everyone learns something and engagement is supported instead of stifled.

Q. If the leaders are not equipped to lead engagement, can implementation still be successful if delegated to a lower level?

A. No. We’re talking about a shift here that must be valued up and down the organization and especially at the top. These values drive subtle and not so subtle behaviors that become part of the culture and transcend market shifts and personnel changes. Here we assume “implementation” to be a sustainable OpEx system. A leader who is equipped to lead engagement not only understands the benefits, but values the operating norms that better engagement brings.

Since a lot of the heavy lifting and day-to-day activities of implementation are in fact delegated, it’s important to understand how to help leaders do this. We talked about the training and coaching aspect for leaders in Q1 above. In addition to understanding the value of better engagement, the organization must know how to do it.

Everyone in the organization must be expected to spend a small percentage of time on improving the business ― as opposed to running the business. In the simplest terms, this means allowing workers some freedom to fix problems that affect their day-to-day work at the micro-process level. Supervisors and middle managers aren’t exempt: They too should spend about an hour a week addressing slightly more “macro” problems that affect their areas and people. At all levels, the most effective improvement efforts are team-based to drive process ownership and accountability.

Since exactly how to do engagement can be described, the activities can be tracked. This is important because it moves leaders beyond the idea of just “valuing engagement” (because who doesn’t right?) to “knowing how to DO engagement.” Only when this happens can implementation be effectively delegated.

Q. How important are engagement scores to measuring the success of OpEx? What measures would be more important to determining success?

A. Engagement scores are important. OpEx and engagement scores (from surveys and audits) are directly related. Successful Operational Excellence is in large part the result of good engagement. So engagement scores are a good lagging indicator of OpEx and a great leading indicator of operational performance.

A focus on leading indicators is a good place to start. Here’s a way to think about indicators:

  • Leading indicators ― Instead of a “result” metric, leading indicators are often the measurable actions that are taken to achieve a result. For engagement these are the structures and mechanisms we use to cause engagement – for example, the Executive Steering Committee (ESC), and Lean Daily Management System®. These structures describe specific, measurable activities that are part of a high-functioning OpEx system.
  • Middle indicators are the process performance measures ― and the associated plans to improve ― at the macro and micro-process levels. These are a tangible reflection of the living adoption of OpEx. The organization likes these a lot because they show something is being done to improve results.
  • Engagement scores are an important lagging indicator that provides proof and external validation that the OpEx system is working (or not). Those who score the highest go beyond better communication and asking people for more feedback. They incorporate ways for employees to have direct input into the work that they do – that is, the work that is relevant for them.


Want  more detail on these topics? You can download the full survey report – An Examination of Operational Excellence – from the Resources section of our website. You’ll need to register.

To learn more about enabling leadership to connect the dots between engagement and value, check out our White Paper: Engage the Organization – And a Performance Culture Will Follow.


Managing Change: 10 Tips to Improve Communication

When it comes to implementing any new initiative, communication is a critical success factor. A full menu of changes; some large and sweeping, some small but critical, will be generated by and with people in the organization over the course of the effort. How leadership chooses to broadly communicate these changes ― all together, in small or large portions, or one-on-one, can make a huge difference in the rate of adoption. It’s important to carefully consider how, when, why, what and where information / updates will be presented to fully engage employees and, ultimately, drive sustainable improvements.

The way information is communicated to employees during times of change has a tremendous impact on the final results. If handled ineffectively, morale and productivity decreases ― despite the best of intentions. When there are looming questions and concerns, they lose faith. If employees don’t receive enough information, speculation and rumor can become truth. In the end, a disengaged workforce emerges, communicate for better engagementresulting in reduced effort and commitment just when their dedication is needed the most. How do you stop or prevent this from happening?

Leadership should consider these 10 ideas when planning for, announcing, implementing, and communicating Lean transformation activities:

1. Get Qualified Communicators Involved

It’s important for organizations to get their internal communications team involved from the very beginning. Too often, qualified communicators are involved after a backlash is in full force ― when leaks and rumors are rampant. CFOs and COOs are not typically qualified to understand how employees will respond to change and how best to share information. On the other hand, qualified internal communications professionals typically have proven expertise in change management, crisis communications, executive communications, etc. They need to have a seat at the leadership table.

2. Establish a Communications Plan

Don’t confuse process (e.g., visioning, chartering executive steering committees, planning, endless PowerPoint presentations, etc.) with communication. While those meetings and processes can be communication vehicles if designed mindfully and handled in the context of a broader program, they aren’t adequate to meet all communication needs.

3. Communicate Early

Once a plan and timeline has been developed based on the initiative strategy, start communicating. The longer employees have to wrap their heads around change, the better they tend to accept it. At the beginning of the change:

  • Communicate employee benefits first ― starting with “how this change helps the organization” can create a sense of injustice, so focus on employees first;
  • Identify why the change is necessary and what will happen if there is no change;
  • Explain how the changes fit into the overall business strategy and the organization’s priorities;
  • Review the process, including what will be done to involve everyone in it;
  • Discuss timing and when they will get more information.

4. Communicate Often

Update employees regularly to share victories and address pending issues. When employees are communicated with frequently, they are more likely to support the change for the long-term. Information can and should also be repeated (through multiple channels), as research shows that most people have to hear something several times before they fully process the message.

5. Use Multiple Communication Channels

Some organizations make the mistake of using only one vehicle, such as e-mail or signage, to communicate changes. Considering not every employee digests information the same way, and that there are so many options to choose from, organizations that leverage a multi-channel approach ― combining email, intranet, social chat rooms, newsletters, presentations, face-to-face meetings, conference calls, etc. ― have more success.

6. Prepare Spokespeople

Leadership does not only need to understand how to explain the transformation, they need to understand when they should and should not be the ones to speak about it. They need to know how to keep things positive. They also need to be able to drill down and explain what change means to various audiences. Keeping them in sync is critical.

7. Test Your Communications

It is often useful to test out messaging on a subset of stakeholders, especially when there’s time to do so. Testing can be done through focus groups, employee surveys, or a more informal round-table where individuals can practice delivering the message and get first-hand feedback.

8. Provide Ample Opportunities to Share Feedback

Giving employees multiple opportunities to share concerns, ask questions, and offer ideas is crucial to the process. The more two-way communication is made a priority, the better the organization can keep its finger on the pulse of what future communications need to include to meet the needs of the audience.

9. Make Change Part of Day-To-Day Work

To get employees to fully embrace change, a management system, like Kaufman Global’s Lean Daily Management System® (LDMS®), should be put into place to drive day-to-day focus. LDMS helps visualize activities and promote active communication about the work of individual teams every day. It:

  • Supports and reinforces clarity of purpose at all levels of the organization;
  • Builds continuous improvement and disciplined execution into day-to-day work;
  • Involves and develops people;
  • Creates a culture of collaboration and accountability.

10. Become a Role Model

People judge the performance of leaders not by what they say but by what they do. Employees will watch closely to determine how leadership is feeling about the change and will draw their own conclusions based on that behavior. Leaders should:

  • Convey that they are personally committed to the changes by active participation and sponsorship;
  • Be open to discussion with employees regarding the changes;
  • Express confidence in the team’s ability to make it through the changes;
  • Seek and incorporate input to make the changes work.