It’s not the tool, it’s how you use it

There are a myriad of tools available from different systems that one can use in their business to map and define the processes, analyse and determine root causes and develop the future state. They’re not all equal and some will inherently provide better results than others. But what matters the most is how they are used.

Let’s be honest, we all have our favourite tools in out lean tool kit. We work best with what we are familiar with. To get the best out of any tool we need to be able to apply the right tool to the right application. But saying that, all of the tools are flexible to a degree and can be applied to different applications with a little thinking and modification.

One of my favourite tools is the Value Stream Map which I have applied in business’s as diverse as automotive, to FMCG, to Government. Virtually any process can be mapped with the VSM. The same applies for standardised work, Kanban, SIPOC, virtually all of the tools available. Take some time to adapt the tools to help you in whatever business you are in and importantly, don’t get hung up on the purists thought that the tools must used as they were originally designed. This in itself goes against the thinking of lean and continual improvement.

Lead Indicators

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about working within areas you can have some influence; in this blog I also mentioned Lead Indicators. I’ve had some requests to expand on this a bit to not only explain what lead indicators are, but also to explain why they are critical to success.

So, to begin with, a quick overview of what a lead indicator is and how they differ from lag indicators. A lag indicator is a metric that is the result of the work undertaken. So, for example a measurement of the total products produced in a shift is a lag indicator because you do not know how many are produced until the shift is finished. By that time it is too late to change or even impact the result; this is why we call it a lag indicator. If you were a sporting coach and you only look at the end result before determining a change of plan that should have been enacted in the 2nd half of the game it is too late. Well it’s the same in business!

Now let’s look at a lead indicator. Following the same two examples as before; if we were to monitor and report hourly on the throughput from the factory this would still be a simple lag indicator. However, if we measure this and report against an hourly production target, we can immediately see if we are on track or off track throughout the day; and when we find ourselves off track we can make timely adjustments to correct the situation. In a sporting context, now we monitor our live score; but once again, if we don’t measure this against the target (which is in many cases the opposition score) we are no better off.

The quote “what gets measured gets managed” has been around for quite a while now and is an unfortunate source of delusion for many businesses. They setup a metric system (of mostly lag indicators) and expect the good results to come. It’s not hard, but it’s also not quite that easy! A better interpretation of the quote would be “what gets measured effectively gets managed”; a small but important addition to the original.

So how do we get better at this? The first step is to review what you are currently measuring in your business and determine if the indicators are lead or lag (lag indicators are always needed at some level to report on company performance); those that are not lead but should be, change them. For every lag indicator there are a number of lead indicators that can be used. Google is your friend here, whatever business you’re in, you’re probably not alone and others have already chartered the waters.

When Buy-In Doesn’t Come

We’ve all been in this situation when buy-in just doesn’t come. I’ve been lucky enough over my career to not have this issue too often. You don’t really understand how critical buy-in is until you try and facilitate change without it.

So firstly, what is buy-in and why is it needed? Most of the time, those facilitating the change are not in a position of high authority but are working under delegation. This can have some benefits in that ultimate responsibility lies elsewhere; however the cons are far greater than the benefit. Without real authority it can be a challenge to gain commitment from others to participate fully through the change process. This is what we mean when we say buy-in. 

So what do you do when the buy-in doesn’t come? You have three options here.

1) The preferred option is turn it around and create buy-in. Identify who it is that is not buying into the process and give them a reason to come along for the journey. You’ll find just about everybody has a reason for not joining, find out what this is and create a desire in then to come on the journey.

2) The second option is to identify those within the business who just will not come along for the journey; unfortunately, sometimes you find people that are not willing to improve. Once you have identified them you can either take on the challenge and convert them; often converting these key resistors will brings others who were sitting on the fence. Alternatively, if this isn’t possible, some tough decisions may be necessary.

3) If all of this fails, you may have to make a different tough decision by asking yourself the question “are you wasting your time?”. Not every business is destined to succeed on the improvement journey.

One important thing to highlight, don’t expect this to all just happen. Often, setting the scene for success takes just as long as the actual journey; the results though are worth the efforts.

What can YOU do?

Sometimes in business problems that start off small in both size and consequence quickly (or slowly) grow into something much, much bigger. When this happens the problem becomes owned by more than a single function within the business; this is when it often becomes more difficult to identify the root cause and develop corrective actions. This is also often when we first start to look at the problem. So how do we work through these issues?

Well, firstly we need to learn that it’s much easier and always better to fix a problem when it’s small and contained than when it is big and broad. The issue is, we often aren’t aware there is a problem when it’s in a manageable state. We need to start using lead indicators to give us a chance of identifying problems earlier; more about this next week.

One thing we can do now that the problem has grown is to break things down. Don’t look at a problem as a big picture. Look at the process as a flow from left to right. Below is a very simple inline process flow; yours is likely to be more complex, however the idea is to keep this diagram as simple and high level as possible and practical. Working backwards through the process identify the first step that the problem in question is noticed. As a team, work through the root cause analysis process at the point of cause.


Sometimes, even getting to the above point can be difficult if you haven’t got the buy-in from other departments or there is not a great deal of unity. You can still look at how you and your team impact the issue and what you can do that is within your control. Often this is a good place to start as you can lead by example in getting a result. By doing this, sometimes other teams will get on board either through embarrassment or genuine buy-in when they see one team working towards an outcome. And if it takes embarrassment, that’s fine; as long as it gets the right result.