The first article of this series discussed how a large number of Lean initiatives either fail outright or fail to deliver as planned. The majority of these failures have one item in common – specifically, the leaders of the culture-changing event failed to create a clear, understandable and useful vision for the facility. Hence, the people in the facility did not have a clear grasp of the direction of the business and what their specific role should be. This lack of understanding then led to a diffused focus and a misalignment of resources – both between and within groups – which ultimately led to the aforementioned failures.

A vision for a business should address three topics, at a minimum: 1) who we are, 2) what we do 3) and where we must go. Sometimes this vision is referred to as a statement of purpose, mission or even an aggregated mission-vision-value statement, but they all are trying to address the same three topics. For the sake of brevity, I will use the term vision.

The Role of Vision

A good vision will act as a clarifying force to create a “hoped for” picture for the Lean enterprise. The most important roles of a vision are to focus and align a group in order to guide behaviors. The focus and alignment are needed for several reasons. First, the resulting vision simplifies and speeds up many decisions. Second, it can help a business avoid making short-term decisions that are not in its best long-term interests. Third, it helps coordinate and prioritize the actions of diverse groups. Fourth, and most importantly, it is a key tool that enables leadership to extend their influence in decision making at all levels.

A vision for a Lean enterprise should have particular characteristics. The vision must be:

  1. Understandable and executable by all.
  2. Measureable by all.
  3. Focused on the balanced needs of customers, employees and stockholders.
  4. Focused on supplying ever-greater value to customers, through the elimination of waste.
  5. Focused on the pursuit of perfection.
  6. Have a long-term focus, even at the expense of short-term losses.

The Creation of a Vision

The vision for a business is usually crafted by its top management; it is then incumbent upon that group to deploy and sell the vision to the entire facility. For a vision to be effective, those selling it must not only understand it but also believe in it. In other words, the vision must have a place in their mind and their heart. A well-stated business case with a little bit of awareness training will accomplish the former. However, for a vision to capture their heart, people must have some skin in the game. This means they will need to contribute to the creation of the vision. This is not a simple process.

When creating the vision, the top managers will need to get all the issues out on the table…and I mean all the issues. They will need to discuss, debate, argue and, short of fisticuffs, fight for their positions. Creating a vision is neither a fast, nor a linear, nor an efficient process. It is, in a word, messy. But this process of discussing, arguing and passing through chaos – only to regress and reargue – is a necessary journey for the managers to take so that all the differences and commonalities can be broached. Then, after this arduous, soul-searching, gut-wrenching process, is it possible to attain a joint understanding that all are willing to support – a consensus. This expenditure of emotional energy is absolutely necessary so that each member of top management can then have “heart engagement” to the vision, to go along with the already achieved “mind engagement.” Until you have both, you will not have the total management engagement that is necessary to get the entire business focused and aligned.

A Sample Vision Statement

This is the vision of a small specialty lighting company, which provides exterior lighting products to building contractors and municipalities in the United States. They went through the messy process described above to reach their vision. It is easy to see what their focus will be, and if an outsider entered their business they would be able to understand that this is clearly their behavior guidance document.

The XYZ Lighting Corp.’s vision is to continuously improve 1) customer value, 2) employee job security and 3) stockholder earnings by: reducing costs, increasing innovation, improving quality and reducing order lead times for all architectural products in our product line. We will do this through two guiding strategies:

  1. Identification and elimination of waste in our entire business system.
  2. Becoming the market leader in new product introduction while ever reducing the lead time for new product introduction.”

Perpetuating a Vision

Actualizing and perpetuating a vision is surprisingly easy to say, yet immensely difficult to accomplish. It is really a matter of accomplishing three difficult tasks.

  • First, management must communicate the vision using every means possible. For example, in their work meetings, managers must discuss how daily activities are supportive of, and flow from, the vision. When promotions are discussed, the top candidates must be clearly seen pursuing and being guided by the vision. When the budget is developed, it must start with the vision. Management must convey that the vision is who we are and what we do, and that it describes where we are going. The vision should be both the start and the end of everything the organization does.
  • Second, management must find and publicize those specific successes that reinforce the vision. In doing this, management should say, in effect, “We are successful and our vision took us there.” Success breeds motivation.
  • Third, and most importantly, management must reinforce the vision through their actions. The entire workforce will be watching to see how management is really acting; if management supports the vision, they will reinforce it, and the workforce will follow with their support. Conversely, if the management is seen as not supporting the vision, that is the litmus test for imminent failure.

Keep It Simple

While implementing a Lean initiative, one company, for one of its first-year goals, wanted to “get workforce engagement.” At one meeting, a manager said, “We want everyone involved everyday.” This was broadly accepted and the management team condensed it to a mantra, “Everyone, Everyday.” This short statement became shorthand for their vision to guide employee engagement.

Months later, at a steering committee meeting, the committee members were discussing training status and noticed that one small group, in Europe, was not scheduled for training. A manager quickly replied that there were only nine people in the group and the cost of the training would be extremely expensive. It was a pretty rational argument from a pure management perspective – a cost-benefit analysis. But someone asked, “How does that fit with, Everyone, Everyday?” A silence hit the room as everyone recognized that they could not slight the training of this small group because it violated the essence of their vision. That short mantra created focus and alignment – that’s what a good vision should do. Despite its brevity, the statement meets the four roles that a vision should play.

Managing the Vision

A company’s vision is a powerful cultural tool that can not only create, but also perpetuate the focus and alignment a business will need to survive and prosper. A well-managed vision will go a long way toward explaining to everyone “just how we do things around here.” In addition, behind an actualized vision is the demonstrated leverage of an organization’s leadership – which relates to the next installment in this series, Lean leadership.

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