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There’s a Process for That: Embracing the People Side of Lean

In manufacturing, ineffective workplace interactions are the 9th form of waste—one that can be eliminated!
There’s a Process for That: Embracing the People Side of Lean

Looking for lean? Despite manufacturers’ good faith initiatives to identify and eliminate elusive waste, they fail to recognize a source that’s in plain sight: ineffective workplace interactions.

There’s potential waste in every manager-team member interaction. Whether they are formal (team meetings, coaching and performance discussions, etc.) or informal (e.g., phone calls, emails, instant messages, and hallway/elevator conversations) interactions—they are all critical to the day-to-day operations of manufacturing groups.

And, when these interactions don’t go well or aren’t effective, they can multiply the negative impact of the familiar eight forms of waste manufacturers are most familiar with: defects, overproduction, downtime, underutilized skills, transportation, inventory, motion (e.g., bending, lifting, reaching), and over-processing. By failing to view interaction inefficiency in the same light, organizations fail to meet an essential objective of lean: continuous improvement.

For this reason, we’ve dubbed ineffective interactions the “ninth form of waste.” Learning to recognize and eliminate it can significantly reduce the other eight forms.

Therefore, if we are serious about eliminating waste, we must give equal consideration to the “softer” side of production, i.e., “the people side of lean.” It’s time to shift the focus from leaders’ technical skills to those that allow them to manage their interactions and their teams effectively.

Trend research shows that the manufacturing industry is hit the hardest by the gap in these soft skills—and industry leaders are painfully aware of the issue. According to Accenture’s 2013 Global Manufacturing Study, 35 percent of manufacturers report having a “significant” skills gap at the supervisory level, while 20 percent acknowledge a significant gap at the operational level.

While improving poor leader-team member interactions may sound simple, it can be as challenging as eliminating any of the other forms of waste. One reason: Despite recognition of a soft skills gap, organizations are just waking up to the “people side of lean”; they haven’t yet realized that ineffective interactions are the root cause of much of the waste they’ve mistakenly attributed to other sources. Unlike, for example, the cause-and-effect relationship between defective products and reduced profit margins, the connection between ineffective interactions and the bottom line isn’t as readily apparent.

The other major reason is that leaders don’t recognize their personal contributions to waste generation. Perhaps a legacy from the “command and control” era that once defined manufacturing, many leaders follow a simple, one-way communication style of telling people what they need to do, without showing much concern for how their messages are received. It’s perhaps counterintuitive that two-way communications—which take more time and consider the needs of the participants—are actually more efficient, and don’t create waste. Leaders who take the communication shortcut of “telling” without demonstrating respect, clarifying understanding, or seeking employee input also cut off opportunities to strengthen employee commitment, solve problems more quickly, and build stronger team capability.

Standardizing the operating procedure

So what do we do with an organization full of leaders comfortable with their own interaction styles, but who are contributing to costly waste?

The first step toward eliminating the ninth form of waste is to treat an interaction as you would any other manufacturing process: You must standardize the workforce interaction. Like delivery, extraction, fabrication, transportation, etc., the interaction process can be systematized into a repeatable, predictable process that reduces variability. Once the process is established, it can be applied to any type of interaction.

We propose the Interaction EssentialsSM as the proven process for standardizing workforce interactions.

The Interaction EssentialsSM (Figure 1) provide a framework for satisfying the two critical components of effective interactions: the practical and personal needs of the participating parties. This standardized approach includes the Interaction Guidelines: five steps that target the practical needs of participants by guiding the structure of the conversation. These steps—Open, Clarify, Develop, Agree, and Close—comprise a process that progresses from the beginning of the interaction, through the engagement of participants, to the resolution.

Personal needs, meanwhile, are met through the application of a set of Key Principles (center of Figure 1). The Key Principles guide how participants interact with one another during the conversation, and focus on fostering esteem, empathy, involvement, sharing, and support. Meeting personal needs addresses one of the foundational elements of lean: respect for employees. And, the consistent and effective application of the Key Principles builds trust—another fundamental element of successful lean operations. Managers can learn how to utilize these principles at each of the five steps to ensure positive interactions.

Two additional process elements—checking for understanding and making procedural suggestions—help sustain the interaction.

The Interaction Essentials at work

Through the use of the Interaction Essentials, interactions such as giving performance feedback, seeking suggestions, or setting performance goals can be standardized, and the waste generated by missing a step or violating a Key Principle can be eliminated.

For example, if a manager skips the “open” step (and fails to explain the purpose and importance of the discussion), the conversation has no context. Likewise, if he or she doesn’t “clarify” essential background information, there’s no guarantee participants are on the same page. Our research shows that 85 percent of frontline leaders don’t clarify before moving on to discuss an issue.

Also, when leaders fail to seek and listen to team members’ input, they cannot effectively “develop” a course of action. They miss getting great ideas from others and can fail to identify the root cause of the problem they’re trying to solve. An alarming 94 percent of frontline leaders rely on their own ideas, rather than involving the people closest to the work—their employees.

Figure 1: The Interaction EssentialsSM

Finally, when leaders skip over the “agree” and “close” parts of the process and fail to review the WHOs, WHATs, and WHENs of next steps, there can be no commitment and, consequently, no action. Just think about all the meetings you’ve walked out of, unsure of what was decided and what action items were assigned to whom.

Now that we’ve explored the components of the Interaction Essentials, let’s listen to what they might “sound” like in action. Figure 2 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.

Figure 2: Example of a Leader Employing the Interaction Essentials

The Interaction Essentials are effective at eliminating the ninth form of waste whether used by leaders to address teams or interact with individual employees. And, no matter how difficult a particular coaching or feedback situation may be, leaders can use the Key Principles to demonstrate respect—a tenet of lean leadership.

This example is just one illustration of the importance of using one Key Principle with one employee in a single situation. Just imagine the waste-eliminating and productivity-generating power of a management team well-versed in the Interaction Essentials!

James Clevenger, Ph.D., is strategic account manager for DDI. He works with manufacturing organizations to drive lean principles.


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

View a webinar on Leadership Development in Manufacturing and Industrial Sectors.

Learn more about Interaction Management®.

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