The Process Owners and Operators Are the Process Experts

If your people believe that the traditional managers who want to run things the way they always have are the ones who decide what lean events will happen, what improvements will be made, and how the enterprise will execute those improvements, then you are most emphatically not getting lean. Management domination and command and control administration of the workplace does not nurture and sustain lean transformation. It defeats the very people who are the foundation of lean and leaves management wondering why people are skeptical, or aren't contributing, or both. That's not to say that the process owners and process operators are always immediately enthusiastic about lean. There can be numerous points of resistance. Often, process owners and process operators do not agree there's a problem with the current process. Perhaps they don't agree that the cause is batch processing or that lean (or use of smaller batch sizes or one-piece flow) is the solution. In fact, they may think that more problems will be created if lean is introduced. They also may think that holding a process kaizen class or event means they weren't doing a good job before.

This author has had the unfortunate experience of being the facilitator in a process stream mapping exercise when a middle manager made this denigrating remark about those present: "We will present our process, but I don't think the 'shop folks' will understand it." I then asked, "Will you be able to understand the processes being presented by the other [shop] teams?" Her reply: "Of course." I

responded, "So, I am to take it that you can understand what they do, but they can't understand what you do?" Her answer: "Yes." It never dawned on her that all were shaking their heads at her ignorance and elitism. Not surprisingly, her process presentation was not very enlightening. Taichii Ohno had a phrase for managers (and others) who believed their work was above scrutiny, but that process operators' work was not: He called them cementheads. Be on the lookout for them. They will sabotage your lean transformation. One lean facilitator told me that when he encounters a "cementhead" he recommends that said "cementhead" be given an opportunity, at the earliest possible time, to seek employment in a mass production environment. Why? Because in a mass production environment their views will fit the management paradigm and they will be happier. They are not going to be happy in a lean-empowered workplace. And we won't be happy with them.

Another workshop tool may be useful to illustrate a commonly held false belief among the cementheads. Ask a group of managers/supervisors this question: "Do you know your job better than your boss knows your job?" Asked this question, even in a workshop or class session, virtually all managers or supervisors will agree, that, yes, they do know their own jobs better than their boss understands the jobs. However, when asked whether or not their direct reports know their own jobs better than they—the managers and supervisors—know them, the response is nearly unanimous: no, the direct reports do not know their own jobs better than those managers and supervisors know those jobs—even though the process operators perform those very jobs day after day!

When the enterprise endorses the lean cultural principle "the process owners and operators are the process experts,"—each at their organizational or activity level of process—then the enterprise is truly empowered! Of course your direct reports know their jobs better than you do. If not, you have failed to teach them and are responsible for the poor output quality, cost, and delivery. Even though it has become common to ask who knows more about a task than the ones performing it, it is seldom taken to heart by management.

In summary, empowerment is incorporated into lean enterprise systems as an inherent element of the work processes. Lean processes are built on the belief that the people who do the work are best qualified to improve it and that people who are empowered to turn their ideas into improvements are best motivated to continuously improve the work processes.

The statement that the process owners and operators are the process experts implies that today's process is as value added as the use of current tools and enablers will allow, and the process owners and operators are doing the best job that they can. When processes are identified, process owners and customers are all able to help in improvement, if they are empowered. The process experts know what work must be accomplished in the process. The process customers know what they want from the process output, product, or service. Process experts design and implement process Lean Performance improvements.

The preceding notwithstanding, the dilemma faced by many IT professionals is that information/support and management decision process owners and operators are often unwilling to even discuss the opportunities present in a new software tool, let alone empower the process operators to do so. This phenomenon has caused the failure of many an information system—based improvement project. Many times the information technology engineer or analyst cannot penetrate past the process owners' and operators' view of the process as a set of tasks that include the tasks performed by the current system enabler. They don't think about the presence of specific requirements in their process, requirements that compose the process, no matter what the enabler might be. The key characteristic of the Lean Performance methodology is a preoccupation with providing that separation in the mind of the process owner between the process Whats and the enabling Hows. The process workflow standard is the lean tool employed, and it eventually will become the technologists' greatest ally in applying new system enablers in the Lean Performance environment.

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