Sep 18, 2008

New energy behind continuous improvement

DTE Energy, based in Detroit, seems to be experiencing a breakthrough in developing a lean culture, just in the last few months. The skeptic in you has already said, “A few months does not change a culture.” Leaders at DTE know this, and have the need for sustaining change clearly in their sights.

The company has been working to implement lean and six sigma for about 10 years now, with some notable gains, but as in many companies, it remained the domain of somebody else. The focus had drifted to cost cutting. It was about projects and tools.

Then the continuous improvement folks talked some top executives into attending a weeklong class conducted by the Toyota Supplier Network. They came back on fire, ready to emulate companies like Autoliv that were on a more people-oriented track.

The goal was to get these executives to co-teach front line employees the same way of thinking, with the support of continuous improvement facilitators. It would be a hands-on class, held at a worksite, and the execs, managers, supervisors and frontline employees would attack a few problems together. They would come up with 50 ideas - small incremental changes - in five days. Imagine what that was like. VP-level leaders having to stand in front of a class and teach lean and six sigma concepts, employees cautiously eyeing them to try to spot insincerity, continuous improvement specialists crossing their fingers hoping the strategy would work, having to come up with so many ideas.

But it worked. Imagine now what it is like to see a VP sitting next to an operations scheduler for two full days learning what the problems are and helping a team start to solve them. Having him see that waiting for computers to boot up in the morning was costing time, and responding to somebody’s idea by authorizing the setup of a wireless network. I think you’d see leaders gain respect for people and their willingness to do a good job if barriers can just be lifted. I think you’d see employees start to think that maybe these front office guys are serious. Actually, you’d see that these high-level folks who mostly started as engineers having a great time being where the action is - at the point of activity, as it’s called at DTE.

Then what? How about repeated visits and coaching from these same leaders? How about them faithfully attending report-outs? How about hearing them repeatedly acknowledge that they have much, much more improvement to make, and that sustaining these gains is no easy task?

I’ve been graciously allowed this access because I’m writing another article for AME’s “Target” magazine. That won’t appear for awhile, but in the meantime, I wanted to give Lean Reflections readers a little preview. Getting management on board is probably the single most difficult problem in a lean implementation. If others can learn from DTE’s example, they may have the solution to it.


Lean Ranger said...

Karen. Interesting Blog. I share your joy at seeing such a change in executive behavior. The change is really the essense of 21 st Century leadership: role up your sleeves, listen, learn and coach. Wow. I spent many years in process improvement eleven at a utility and I must say, the leadership you wrote about happens rarely but when it does it know the pants off the competition. Lean Ranger

Karen Wilhelm said...

Thanks for reading this and commenting. My interviews with DTE execs were inspiring. They recognize that sustaining this change is a true challenge -- we will just have to watch. Since then, I've had a look at Steve Spear's new book,"Chasing the Rabbit" and it lays out many of the principles being employed at DTE. I will get to interview Steve next week and add his insights.

Robert Jacko said...
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