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Article -> Employees Shouldn't Starve. They Should be Lean.

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Date Added: June 2006

Lean is not the latest fad diet that everyone at the office is trying. And, it’s not a two-week starvation diet. It is the lean production philosophy – a process designed to bring “low-fat living” to your organization.  
 
More than 50 years ago, Japanese auto manufacturer Toyota began developing a new continuous improvement methodology that combined a deep understanding of quality with a desire to be the fastest. In 1989, this process was termed “lean production.” The lean production process has clearly defined goals for short cycle times, high quality and rapid project development. It also should focus on engaging employees, as they are a key component to lean success.
 
Just like the latest diet, many organizations are searching for quick fixes to aid their revenue and profitability statements. Being lean, however, requires a lean corporate culture, which includes effectively communicating lean to employees. Many companies want to become lean, but often skip an important step in the process. Dieting alone rarely works to lose weight. However, the proper combination of diet and exercise, or in this case, implementing lean with determining employees’ understanding and engagement in the lean culture, offers the best opportunity for long-term results.
 
Lean should not simply be a new corporate initiative. It must be engrained in the corporate culture. As a new corporate initiative, it may be viewed by employees as “the flavor of the month” and may not be taken seriously. The lean champion should be the CEO or President.
An example is a non-manufacturing firm that is launching lean later this year. The President realizes lean must be part of their culture and employees must embrace it. To accomplish this, they invested in a process called Voice of the Employee to ask, listen and learn from their employees. While they have a track record of increasing profits, they realize that to sustain and widen their competitive gap, they must have a strong understanding of what drives and motivates employees to ensure they are providing the right tools and training to retain top performers.
 
The results indicated that while employees are engaged in the culture and have a desire to improve workflow and reduce waste, there are opportunities to improve. This is exactly what the firm wanted to know so it could prepare employees for the lean journey.
 
The Voice of the Employee process closes the gap between what an organization perceives employees’ needs to be versus what employees’ needs truly are. While some feel this process is the same as an annual employee satisfaction survey, this is incorrect. It is a proactive employee needs analysis that creates a comprehensive employee view on lean, engagement, culture, leadership and many other factors. It is personalized for each organization as each organization has its own unique culture.
 
Asking employees what their wants, needs and expectations are allows firms to gain competitive market advantages, reduce costs and improve efficiencies. Organizations can align their strategic positioning with their people through a comprehensive employee communications plan and leadership development programs for top performers. For example, as NEW North continues to generate economic development opportunities for Northeast Wisconsin, the alignment of lean with the understanding of people creates a venue for organizations to more effectively recruit high performing employees, thereby helping stimulate economic development.
 
Best practice corporations wisely invest in lean consultants who are experts at pursuing the right initiatives and organizational changes. Best practice also calls for an expert in the Voice of the Employee process, as lean consultants are not necessarily experts in people, communication and leadership development – important factors for lean success. Partnering with both a lean consultant and a firm specializing in Voice of the Employee should be viewed as an investment and ensures a positive ROI. Without one of these, you may be reducing calories, but not fat.
 
A personalized Voice of the Employee process helps organizations proactively identify employee needs on many items, including lean. It involves learning what employees want, knowing what they are willing to learn, and understanding what actions employees believe add value to your products and services. The result is maximized profitability and productivity, increased communication, retention of top performers, and stronger employee partnerships.
 
Lean corporations and those considering going lean can feed and strengthen themselves by engaging employees into their lean diets. Done properly, the rewards of lean are always worth the investment.
 
This article was featured in the Bay Business Journal in the June/July 06 issue. Employees Shouldn't Starve. They should be Lean.
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