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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Results Improve When Leaders Give Up Some Control

Transformation requires a fundamental shift in how the organizations collaborate to make real change happen.

boss controlling a worker with a remote controlWhen it comes to guiding an organization through transformative change, control is the determining factor. How much design and direction is pushed down from the top and how much discretion is left to the rest of the organization will make or break any initiative.  The best outcomes are achieved by striking the right balance between two approaches: Top-down command and control versus autonomous decision making. Moving the organization off their status quo means certain things must be directed and enforced, yet many organizations fail because so much of their energy is focused on controlling the wrong things.

Successful transformation efforts demand collaboration up, down and across the enterprise. For process optimization to occur, the organization must establish ways for people doing their work to be continuously involved. Significant changes (processes, procedures, work standards, etc.) must be developed collaboratively. If new methods and approaches for process, communication, safety and efficiency are foisted onto the organization, resistance mounts and the game is over before it’s even started.

True Facts

  • Autonomy and recognition are at the top of every single study ever conducted about what motivates people in their work. Without these elements, engagement dies and performance suffers. Self-regulating systems provide these attributes naturally.
  • People know more about what is going on in their process or work area than anyone else. It is impossible to optimize any process without direct input and frequent feedback from those doing the work.
  • People will not naturally form themselves into a structure of engagement that focuses on process efficiency. Instead, they will form personal networks that minimize conflict. Correcting this tendency is where leadership focus is critical in helping to drive process ownership and improvement through cross-functional teams.

Culture Is No Excuse for Poor Leadership

The culture of the organization and individual leadership styles will impact how transformation efforts go. It’s usually difficult to tease one out from the other since they are the product of their collective and often mutual experiences. Even so, it is a mistake to use culture as an excuse for poor progress. There are ways for leaders to adjust their approach within the context of the existing culture. In top-down environments, unless there are real changes in the fundamentals of collaboration, it soon becomes evident that the “transformed” enterprise looks and operates as it always has.

Control Systems are Easy to Recognize

Self-Regulating Systems – Feedback, input and action at the work-group level are the hallmarks of good performance systems. Self-regulating systems engage the organization to do three things:

  1. Self-monitor current performance
  2. Independently generate ideas about how to improve
  3. Take autonomous actions to improve outcomes

These systems integrate those doing the work in the design of the process and ask what needs to be done to optimize performance. These systems are less bureaucratic and faster to react.

Command and Control Systems – Here, process design and work standards are developed far away from the work processes. Command and control systems:

  1. Externally monitor, audit and report current performance back to those doing the work
  2. Mandate what to improve – often focused on systems, not processes
  3. Authorize actions that are compliant with their control function

Those who embrace and perpetuate authoritative command and control systems believe that top down management knows more about how work should be done than those closest to the work. These “managers” hold power dearly and resist engagement for fear of losing power and control.

Authoritarian organizations are less efficient and less effective than those where a certain and significant control is pushed down into the organization. When this happens, reaction times in the dynamic environment speed up and safety and efficiency improves because decisions can be made faster. Standardizing and enforcing how the organization engages as a self-regulating system yields the greatest long-term benefit. Unfortunately those managers who survive in top-down systems are the usually the last ones willing to give up “their” control.

Loosen Your Grip

Command and control styles dominate because they are more traditional and more familiar. For bosses and managers, giving up control is tough, especially when under stress. Self-regulating systems don’t require any less work, but in them the direction from the top shifts. They require people to own their performance and enforce the best framework to make this happen.

For those control freaks out there who must control something, fear not ― moving into a more autonomous environment requires plenty of leadership and direction. No organization comes together one day and says, “Hey, let’s all take some control and regulate ourselves and own our performance!” Getting to this place requires a transition of power that requires a lot of work for both traditional leaders and their organizations who are used to being told exactly what to do. People are smart though, and they will find the best ways to optimize processes, enable standards and share learnings if they are given the chance and a mandate. Start by describing a structure that accelerates engagement, collaboration and autonomy and then make sure people are fully subscribed.

Lessons from a Pocket Card: Standard Work for Leaders

Top leaders frequently approach us seeking solutions to their business problems. They want to know what approach we will use, what tools will be applied, how the project will be managed, what results to expect and how we will get their organization to change and sustain? A high-functioning Executive Steering Committee is the most powerful technique for effective change.

These are good questions, yet, their focus is entirely on the problem and the organization. It omits the critical success factor – namely, their own role in driving change.

The question that should be asked is: “How are you going to engage me and my leadership team in this process?”

Seeking the answer to that question means there is recognition that standard work isn’t just for “the doers”. Having a disciplined approach to leading and managing change at the top of the organization is the difference between success and failure. It’s what brings focus and alignment, and therefore prioritization and attention, to the urgent things that must be done.

So what does the standard work of engagement look like for leaders? It’s a question we answer so often it prompted us to create pocket cards that would serve as an easy checklist and guideline. In this case, providing the basic formula for the Executive Steering Committee – the change governance structure. The card does two basic things:

1. Defines the “what” and “how” of the Executive Steering Committee

Executive Steering Committee Side 1










2. Provides questions to ask on an ongoing basis to test ESC functionality

What more could you be doing to propel your teams and initiatives forward with a standard work structure for leaders that drives focus and discipline? Do an informal audit of your own to identify areas of improvement.

Executive Steering Committee Side 2











Employee Engagement Requires Focus

The following is an excerpt from Kaufman Global’s White Paper: Engage the Organization and a Performance Culture Will Follow. Here we examine the reasons why leaders fail to pursue employee engagement, even while it’s proven to be fundamental to success.

Employee Engagement: Why Do Leaders Fail to Act?

If we accept the idea that a fully engaged organization is fundamental to success, then we must ask, “Why Do Leaders Fail to Act?” The simple answer may be because it is exceedingly difficult to challenge ingrained culture and belief systems. Pushing decisions down, engaging the organization broadly and deeply, and giving up some amount of control is not a simple matter. In fact, it counters the culture of traditionally run organizations.

To dig a little deeper into the reasons leaders fail to pursue engagement, Kaufman Global recently surveyed a large group of top leaders and known change agents. These individuals come from diverse industry backgrounds, such as consumer products, energy, government and technology. Averaging over 20 years of experience, each has a proven track record of successfully engaging and improving their organizations.

6 Reasons Employee Engagement is So Difficult

  • Too distracted to do anything new
  • Immediacy – This is the “tyranny of the emergency”
  • Tools Instead – The belief that workshops and Rapid Improvement Events (RIE) solve employee engagement
  • Failure to understand how real engagement works
  • Risk – It’s simply one more thing that inhibits more immediate results
  • Do not believe it makes a difference.

Each of these are described below.

The question was asked, “If we accept that the leader’s function is to create value and that one vital and comprehensive way to do this is by fully engaging the organization — at all levels and at all times — why do so few leaders truly, actively pursue this essential aspect of sustainability and performance?”  Six possible answers were given with a rating that ranged from 1 (seldom) to 5 (often).  A summary of the results follow. Additional detail is provided within the white paper.

Top Reasons Leaders Do Not Pursue Employee Engagement

Distraction | The top reason at 80% is that leaders are too distracted with day-to-day operations and other external inputs to focus themselves or their teams on anything other than existing systems applied to here-and-now deliverables. This defines a mostly reactive environment and one that has multiple competing inputs — often from above. It’s true enough that “Change starts at the top.” With enough distraction the opposite is just as true (and way more common). In this instance, engaging the organization is not valued enough to make it a formal priority.

Immediacy | Next comes immediacy at 72%. Immediacy has to do with the extreme focus on short-term goals and results. There’s no time for something that might not deliver a here-and-now win, requires some level of faith and is even slightly different than anything already being done. Moving upward in the organization, if results are not achieved, personal compensation and job security are at risk.

Immediacy and distraction are intimately linked. Distractions mount as the need for immediate results rises. Two back-to-back quarters of poor performance and the level of distraction goes off the scale. If this cycle goes on long enough, pressure and confusion over priorities lead to loss of morale and disengagement. People tend to exit these types of environments, and it’s unfortunate that engagement — a major mitigation factor and the single greatest contributor to employee morale and retention — is among the first to go and is seldom pursued in a systematic fashion.

Tools | Following closely at 68% is “toolitis.” This is a common ailment of many organizations where things like Kaizen Events, Value Stream Mapping and 5S are viewed as engaging the organization. It’s true that these types of activities get people involved, but only temporarily. Six Sigma is more of an expert practitioner methodology and has even less of an engagement mandate. There are many examples of organizations stalling in their Continuous Improvement efforts when they apply a tools-only approach. They have the tools, but value workers are not compelled to pick them up and use them because they aren’t immediately aware of, or have visibility to, their own performance. “Toolitis” is a big problem within production organizations, where employees find it difficult to expand into business processes because they can’t translate the improvement techniques they started with. Tools are most effective when they held in place with engagement.

All of these factors are closely related and combine to form a powerful barrier to real change. That “fail to understand” and “don’t believe” were scored as significant factors says a lot ― and not in a good way ― about basic leadership and management skills. Training is one element that can help, but people learn through their own experiences that are illuminated by existing values and norms. To change these patterns requires a significant reset on how organizations reward certain behaviors.

These barriers — and they apply at all levels — are daunting for anyone attempting change within the area they control. Some traps are more common depending on where you are in the organization. The lower you go, the more the system will attempt to kill your initiative (i.e., “Not invented here.”, “Who else knows about this?” or “This is not part of your job description.”). As you go higher in the organization, the problems associated with trying anything different prevent ignition ― pick any combination of reasons.

Those in the middle of the organization have simultaneously the most to gain and the most to lose. Here there is a lot of local control over value creation ― therefore the gains can be fast and big. In addition, the personal risk of failure for trying something different is less; yet there is strong attachment to the status quo and disruption isn’t much welcomed. Besides, in many situations, operating marginally better than one’s peers doesn’t require anything as foreign as attempting your own fully engaged organization. Without the support of peers and bosses, mid-level managers quickly start to feel they are rowing upstream alone.

Given all the barriers, it’s amazing that anyone pursues the engagement prerogative, but some do. And when someone, somewhere intends to make a meaningful difference by getting everyone involved to the fullest extent possible, the journey can be made a little easier with well-conceived boundaries that are defined by accountabilities, expectations and metrics. Journeys begin by starting to think about engagement as a process (as opposed to an outcome)…

Ready to dig deeper? This article is continued in our White Paper: Engage the Organization and a Performance Culture Will Follow Click here to download the full text.

Drop us a line if you want to learn more about Kaufman Global’s view on engagement.

Take Action to Make Things Happen

In life, there are those who watch things happen, and those who step up, take action, and make them happen.  This concept is woven into the fabric of today’s aggressive and diverse economic landscape where organizations seldom stumble upon success by simply having a strong product or service offering. On the contrary, attaining business differentiation — and sustaining a level of success — requires assertive action – that is; a strong and enduring bias for action. Leading organizations do not sit back and hope for better results. They are far too busy creating them.

the opposite of take action - how I feel all the timeOver time, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, each of us have fallen victim to envy. Being human, we simply cannot help ourselves. When we see others win the lottery, get a promotion, or take an extravagant trip, there’s a small part of us that asks, “Why not me?” We wonder why and how others are achieving such great things. Ironically, in most of these situations, we never bought a lottery ticket, didn’t take the time to apply for the job, and / or spent our vacation money on a home renovation project. Yes, we have high aspirations, but we often make no real commitment — or exert any true energy — to reaching them.

This type of behavior is commonplace in the business community. Leaders often gain a better understanding of their own organization’s challenges by focusing on (envying) their competitors’ successes. For example, upon hearing how another organization realized millions of dollars in cost savings or has been recognized as one of the “best places to work” as a result of Lean transformation efforts,  many leaders do little more than share the story with their team and ask “Why not me (us)?” Even though there are countless business cases supporting waste elimination initiatives, few dedicate sufficient time and resources to effectively implement improvements. For those that do, many struggle to commit to long-term change and, therefore, find themselves circling back to the same question.

Lean is a people system that promotes teamwork. Instead of an environment of one-upsmanship, with Lean you have people (teams) that focus together on common objectives.  A powerful body of knowledge, it creates an atmosphere in which every employee at every level has the focus, structure, discipline, and ownership required to generate improvement, commitment, pride, and enthusiasm that causes the organization to excel. When supported by structured engagement, Lean methods improve every business challenges and job functions. A few examples include:

Employee Retention

A hospital had been experiencing a high degree of front line employee turnover for several years. Recent metrics revealed that 47% of its new hires left in the first 12 months and 74% in the first 18 months. To address this significant challenge, a disciplined, comprehensive project was organized to drive improvements that would increase employee involvement and reduce ongoing organization stressors fueling high turnover. Partnering with Kaufman Global, problems were measurably targeted and new methods and systems were introduced to address issues through Lean Leadership® learning, Rapid Performance Evaluation (RPE), and The Lean Daily Management System ® (LDMS) implementation. Employee ideas are now constructively integrated into the daily work. After only one and a half months on the project, employee flight stopped its free-fall and signs are good for a sustainable reverse of fortune. Employees can now be heard saying, “this is our chance to make a difference. ” Related article: Employee Retention: Strategy and Tactics.

Rework and Machinery Stability

A global tire manufacturer needed to reduce rework and improve machine stability as a foundation for the implementation of a pull scheduling system. Kaufman Global provided oversight of the strategy, design and sequencing of the project through the development and launch of a multi-phased approach. Phase 1 consisted of establishing cross-functional teams to enhance processes for improving changeover times and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Phase 2 involved the pull system development and associated pre-implementation work. To drive sustainable change, workgroups and task forces were mentored, trained, and engaged by working side-by-side with Kaufman Global to actively apply Lean principles to their operations.

Upon completion, a successful demand-pull inventory management and scheduling system was developed to right-size inventory, enabling $750K in annualized savings. Cycle time was also reduced by 17%, resulting in an increased capacity of 274 tires per day.


One of the largest mini-mill steel makers in North America needed to improve productivity on direct labor by redeploying manpower, reducing overtime, and increasing utilization. With a focus on enhancing operational and functional performance, the client needed to develop internal Lean experts to drive improvements and compel a company-wide customer-focused culture. Over a two-year period, Kaufman Global led analysis, program design, implementation and internal capability development efforts. Plant throughput was optimized by expanding OEE, equipment reliability, product yield, and changeover time work streams. A production planning system was also developed to increase responsiveness to customer demand.

As a result, the client achieved capacity increases through a 43% reduction in changeover time, enabling $1.1M in additional revenue. Raw material inventory was reduced by over 50%, driving savings of $25K per month. They also recovered 415 man hours, saved 334 miles of walking and resolved four ergonomic issues.

Success stories like these are abundant for those organizations who fully commit to establishing a Lean culture. Want to find out more about how Kaufman Global works with clients around the world to improve and sustain their results, contact us here.