99% of the population, and even most employees in a growing company, hear that growth has been robust, and they think how pleasurable life must be for upper management. Of course, we know that nothing could be further from the truth. When you start a company, you only need to be good at what you do. Even if your idea isn’t the best and your execution is subpar, if you work hard enough you’ll experience at least moderate success.
The same thing definitely cannot be said for a fast-growing company. You do things the way you have always done them up to a point – but then the day comes when you realize that the company’s burn rate is too high to be left unaddressed. Or that a major product that your managers all swear will be ready to ship next week isn’t even half done and will realistically take months more. And that it’s hard to know exactly what the 30, 50, or 100 people who work for you are doing each day.
It’s easy to panic, enact layoffs, replace a sector of employees, maybe hire a new COO to regain control, then promise your board that this hiccup will be ironed out by the next meeting. But this doesn’t have to be the case. The key, underlying question that really needs to be addressed is how will you take what has, up until now, been a loose, collegial body of workers and make it into a lean, mean profit machine that will continue to deliver fantastic products and services when there are 1000 people working there?
The obvious thing, and many executives’ gut reaction, is to implement what Henry Ford thought of in 1913 – the Lean process. The Lean process has been the go-to standard for many companies, especially in the manufacturing industry, for decades. By turning the creation of a product into a step-by-step process that is always followed by every employee, Ford was able to eliminate many mistakes in their finished product.[1. “A Brief History of Lean,” http://www.lean.org/WhatsLean/History.cfm] In its most basic form, Lean focused on the following:
You can find Lean just about everywhere, from call centers, to banks, all the way into retail. Lean has been seen as a great way to improve productivity and reduce mistakes.
But a fly has landed in that ointment in the last decade or so, and that fly’s name is turnover. Lean processes in their most common form are terrible for inspiring innovation, especially among the newer generation of highly skilled, in-demand knowledge workers who generally value independence and creativity above all else, and who are pitched new job opportunities all the time on their LinkedIn and Facebook, and at industry events and social gatherings.
Corporate culture is shifting as the Baby Boomer generation leaves the workforce. Right now, they’re retiring at a rate of around 10,000 each day. Over the next 18 years, we are going to see them leave the workforce entirely, to be replaced with younger generations. It naturally follows that workplace processes will need to change with this shift.
There are three main generations in the workforce right now and each of these generations has different values based on the events they witnessed in society as they came of age. These three groups are often referred to as the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennials.[2. “Generational Differences in Psychological Traits and Their Impact on the Workplace,” November 2008, http://bit.ly/1fvtGQY]
Baby Boomers – Major influences like the Civil Rights movement have made Baby Boomers organized and accepting of working in groups. They were brought up in traditional households, where they saw their parents rewarded for their hard work and company loyalty. With their ability to work in groups and organize, paired with their desire to succeed through their careers, Baby Boomers were ideal for a Lean environment. The step-by-step process made it easy for them to know exactly how to succeed.
Generation X – Generation X was the first generation of latchkey kids, where independence was a valued trait. They also saw the darker side of people in power, coming of age during scandals like Watergate, and seeing massive corporate downsizing in the 90s. Generation X grew up with a need for independence and a suspicion of people in power. That makes them suspicious of anything that seems too corporate. Lean could be viewed as one of those “too corporate” things.
Millennials – This was the generation that came of age with the internet. They share many traits with Generation X, but they also saw major innovations during their formative years. They are a generation of idealists, who focus on innovation over set processes, again making them unlikely to adhere to strict Lean methodology.
Over the next two decades, those Baby Boomer workers that companies need to keep their Lean processes in check are going to disappear from the workforce, to be replaced by two generations who were raised to distrust the conformism of corporate processes and instead, be innovators in their fields. With both Generation X and Millennials being far more likely to leave their jobs when unhappy, companies that focus too heavily on strict processes are going to see their turnover rates skyrocket.
Lean could become a detriment, rather than an advantage, by stifling the innovation of their newer workers and creating a rigid structure that their new employees will be less likely to follow. Even now, nearly 96% of companies that try to implement Lean are failing within the first 18 months.[3. “Why Continuous Process Improvement May Need to be Discontinued,” July 24, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/ronashkenas/2013/07/24/why-continuous-improvement-may-need-to-be-discontinued/] This number is only going to climb if companies don’t find a way to align the principles of these newer generations with the processes their companies follow.
Both Generation X and the Millennial generation have a few common traits that companies can focus on in order to improve their Lean processes. Among the most important, both generations have a need for feedback from management, and a need to be creative. There are a few ways that companies can still make Lean work for them, simply by allowing a few changes in the process.
Open Door Policies – By implementing open door policies and allowing employees access to the decision makers in the Lean process, management can show their workers that their feedback is valued. At the same time, management will get important feedback from the employees using the process, so they can understand what’s working and what is not.
Multi-Level Committees – As Lean is all about continuous process improvement, it stands to reason that there should be regular meetings about how it’s working. The problem is that many of these meetings occur with management only, making it so the people who don’t actually follow the process are the ones discussing how to improve it. A multi-level committee made up of workers who work with the process on a day-to-day basis, and the middle managers that supervise them, will allow these employees a place to discuss issues that have arisen due to Lean.
Incentivized Suggestions – A good way to get all employees to contribute to the process is to create an incentive for giving the best suggestion to improve the process. The incentive doesn’t have to be huge; it’s the recognition that matters. By making suggestion contribution a positive, rewarding experience, the company can put forward the attitude that they aren’t rigid like the processes they use, but flexible, and that they recognize the value of innovation.
The main part of making Lean work in the new corporate environment is a focus not on how Lean is good for the company, but how it’s good for the individual. Instead of making Lean a strict, unchangeable process that workers must follow, you can make them part of shaping the process.
The core principles of Lean are not focused on eliminating innovation; they are focused on eliminating waste. Companies that wish to adopt this model should consider the changing climate of the workplace, where employees have a greater need for both recognition and creative freedom.
This might require that these employers find a way to deviate from a process that previously allowed no deviation. That doesn’t mean that companies cannot use process-focused plans, but that they must be willing to lean away from the process when it disrupts innovation.
At Applied Vision Works, we offer strategic planning services to help our clients stay true to the fundamentals of business while adapting to changing tastes, trends, and influences in the workforce. We can help you to implement a plan that fits not just your current workers, but the workers that will be changing your company’s culture for years to come.