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The SOP for Workplace Interactions

This is the second in a series on The People Side of Lean where we’ll explore trends and talent challenges faced by today’s manufacturing organizations as they strive to make the transformation to lean.

By James Clevenger, Ph.D.

James ClevengerIn the "almost" words of Kermit the Frog: It's not easy being lean.

If we’re serious about eliminating waste in manufacturing, let’s begin by targeting the “ninth form of waste”: ineffective workplace interactions.

Why? Because ineffective day-to-day interactions are not only drags on productivity and profitability in and of themselves, they also contribute to—and interfere with—an organization’s ability to get rid of the eight other forms of waste: overproduction, defects, inventory, downtime, etc.

People Side of LeanAnd, while improving poor leader-employee interactions may sound simple, it can be as challenging as eliminating the other forms of waste. One reason for this is that organizations are just waking up to the “people side of lean”; they haven’t yet come to the realization that ineffective interactions are the root cause of much of the waste they’ve mistakenly attributed to other sources. Unlike the cause-and-effect relationship between defective products and reduced profit margins, for example, the connection between ineffective interactions and the bottom line isn’t as readily apparent. This explains, in part, why the “ninth form” has been overlooked for so long.

The other part is that leaders don’t recognize their own role in generating waste through their interactions. Perhaps a legacy from the “command and control” era, many leaders follow a simple, one-way communication style of telling people what they need to do, and without much concern for employees’ perspectives. It’s perhaps counterintuitive that more involving discussions—which take more time—are actually more efficient and result in avoiding waste. Leaders who take the communication shortcut of “telling” without demonstrating respect, clarifying understanding, or seeking employee input also cut off opportunities to build employee commitment, solve problems quicker, and build stronger team capability.

So what do we do with an organization full of leaders comfortable with their own interaction styles, yet contributing to costly waste? Make them (temporarily) uncomfortable: Give them a standard operating procedure for interactions that may seem awkward in early applications, but which will quickly become their “new normal” with practice and improved results.

It’s a Process

Accenture's 2013 Global Manufacturing Study states that "globally consistent, repeatable operating models and reliable, predictable production facilities are fundamental to enabling the flexibility required" for today’s manufacturers. We believe the same applies to interactions; leaders need a consistent, step-by-step communication process that yields reliable results and is flexible enough to accommodate every face-to-face or technology-enabled workplace interaction.

In our first blog, we introduced the Interaction EssentialsSM (visualized in the graphic below) as our structured, yet adaptable approach for meeting both the practical and personal needs of individuals. These include five steps—the Interaction Guidelines—that address the former, and five Key Principles that address the latter. The Interaction Guidelines drive the dialogue process, and the Key Principles enable leaders to build esteem and trust, express empathy, and encourage involvement.


The Interaction EssentialsSM: The Standard Operating Procedure for Lean Leaders

What might this process look and sound like?

The following chart offers excerpts of a supervisor’s use of the Key Principles throughout the steps of the Interaction Guidelines in a workplace interaction with an employee.

Interaction Guidelines Key Principles
OPEN: Describe purpose and importance

The purpose of our discussion is to plan how we will implement the new process for your work station. This is important to keep you safe and productive.
Empathy: I know it was distressing for you to work with a potential safety issue.
CLARIFY: Seek and share information, issues, concerns about the situation

What can you tell me about the issue?
Share: When I first started working on the line early in my career, it was an adjustment for me to always be thinking about working safely with equipment like this. I remember how anxious I felt.
DEVELOP: Solicit and discuss ideas and needed support

What ideas do you have for how and when we can address this?
Esteem: I was impressed with how you coached our new team member. He was able to become proficient and avoid the safety issue much more quickly because of your help.

Involvement: Which option would be your first choice?
AGREE: Specify actions and steps to track progress

So, we’ve agreed that I will contact maintenance to schedule them to work with you on Friday. I’ll join you for a test on Monday.
Support: I can give that task to another team member so you have enough time to work with maintenance.
CLOSE: Summarize and express confidence

I think your plan will work very well.
Esteem: I appreciate the thought you put into this and your willingness to try a new approach.

The Interaction Essentials are effective at eliminating the ninth form of waste whether they are used by leaders to address teams or to interact with individual employees. And, despite the difficulty of a particular coaching or feedback situation, leaders can use the Key Principles to demonstrate the respect for others that is a tenet of lean leadership.

As an example, consider a leader who must discuss a performance issue with an employee. Contrast an ineffective statement—“That’s wrong. Why can’t you do anything right?”—with an effective approach: “I know you want to get this procedure right, and I appreciate that. Let’s discuss how you can make sure the work procedure is followed consistently.” By addressing the employee’s need to maintain his self-esteem, the leader can be reassuring rather than adversarial, and avoid the consequences of low morale and commitment: waste.

This is just one illustration of the importance of using one Key Principle with one employee in a single situation. Imagine the power of a management team well-versed in the Interaction Essentials!

Take our Key Principles simulation to see how the skills look in action and to experience their impact.

Coming up next: In our work with clients over more than four decades, we have witnessed the cultural transformation of leadership within thousands of organizations. In our next article, we’ll share the success story of Constellium, a global partner who made the successful transition to lean.

James Clevenger, Ph.D., strategic account manager, has worked with manufacturing organizations to drive lean principles. For more information, visit or contact him at

Learn how DDI’s Manufacturing practice can help you optimize your talent for the success of your business.

Posted: 08 Aug, 2014,
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