As another week winds down and I reflect on my discovery and progress of lean management an image of a painting keeps popping into my head. You know how sometimes you see something that stays in the back of your mind and you don’t know why but later it reveals itself as to why it lingers? Well there is a painting sitting on the floor in my room against the wall and it keeps calling me. So while I ponder what to write in this journal entry I decide it will be my attempt to paint a picture of the environment in which I will be challenged to implement lean philosophy.
My organization is fairly new, existing now around a decade and many people who stood the place up still reside and work today. We have a conglomerate of professionals in our facility, young, old, middle-aged (me), retirees working on another pension, people supporting different contract positions and of course the leadership. There are people who worked here as Soldiers and now they work as civilians in different capacities. I say all this to show that there is a presence of status quo, often the answer to my WHY inquiries are “because this is how it has always been done.” While working with a person that has been here since the building opened he was showing me the process for one particular task. During the task I asked a question and he told me it has been that way since the beginning. The picture you need to see is a facility that has pride because they started the joint but blindness to the evolution of the industry that has occurred around them. Now for the paradox of leadership.
Leadership is what steers the ship in either the right direction or all too often directly into the storm. You probably assume that the leaders of the organization will be the ones to support lean efforts and be able to enforce some true change that has been status quo since the concrete finished drying and the lights were turned on. With much dismay we are the ones that rotate out of here rather quick because of the military lifestyle but the civilian workforce is ever lasting. By the time new leaders are immersed into the operations and begin improving anything it is time to pick up and relocate. Unfortunately people only have to wait us out and humor us then we’ll be gone. I’m not saying that I have a problem with civilians in the military workforce. I’m saying that in my organization the civilians are running the operations and have been and are set in their ways by contract. My challenge is two-fold, I have to learn to be lean and practice what I preach while straddling a line with the civilian management that are absolutely opposed to change.
Fired up one morning and full of the new guy vigor that all too often diminishes through defeat, I am having an exciting conversation with two other Soldiers that are my direct teammates. “We can put a KanBan right here on the wall, identify WIP and make swim lanes.” “Yah great, we can also get our Soldiers to start learning the process of moving this thing over to that thing.” (Apologies for the ambiguity but I will not reveal exactly what we do)…KA-BOOM…this is the hand grenade that is becoming commonplace anytime we discuss initiative in the office. “Sir, you cannot do that because this group does it and it is locked in by contract.” So now you are telling me that in my operations I cannot do something because of legality that grants exclusivity to a group of people to continue doing what they do and worse, the way they do it. Being a professional and knowing that I need allies and not enemies I bite my tongue, literally hold my breath for a few seconds and say I will look into that further. The one who threw the grenade turns back to work with a pleasant relief that they showed me whose boss. I investigate this further to discover the harsh reality in which I now belong; I need to improve the organization to standardize and level work, create a single piece flow for value delivery and prepare the personnel to be able to accommodate variable influx sans heroics all the while not being able to formally change 75% of our process because of law. Which scene of the Titanic do you see, the one where Jack is on the bow of the ship “flying” or the one where he is in the water freezing to death!? Either way it is the Titanic.
Nothing worth doing is easy, right? Learning and applying lean principles is a daunting and worthwhile effort in itself, but doing so in the most adverse conditions will make it even that much better. I know through continuous gemba and opened ended questions and discovery we will get a solid understanding of the situation in its entirety. I have a vision where I want to be, knowing exactly where we are will show me the direction we need to go. I feel this will be one of my toughest assignments ever but probably the most rewarding. I’m lucky to have a mentor coaching me and the teammates supporting me because I’m going to need all the help I can get.