Lean assessments; are they needed?

This post is the original manuscript of the introduction letter in the latest issue of the Lean Management Journal, written by Mr. Ebly Sanchez of Volvo AB and myself. 

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Let us answer the question right away: Yes, they are. If you do not know where you are, how do you know where you’re going? Assessments are vital for many things in life; they provide diagnosis for illness at the hospital, troubleshooting for defects at the auto repair shop, and knowledge about your maturity in lean production. Some kind of assessment is absolutely critical for any successful change program. But, assessments can backfire badly if you do not use them wisely. After more than 6 years experience with lean assessments in the global Volvo Group, we have seen both advantages and disadvantages. Here are a few tips for the road.

What gets measured, gets done

Peter Drucker’s famous saying “what gets measured, gets done” is popular because it is true. An assessment is not merely an audit of the current status. It also suggests the wanted position. It creates a strong “expected-to-improve” environment, and it indicates were to go next. Thus, an assessment provides focus for the improvement, fosters attention from management, and creates a desire for good scores throughout the organization.

Because assessments motivate actions, one should not go easy with them. If not designed carefully they drive the wrong behaviors. One should take great care in developing assessments that are helpful for the organization. Blindly copying other firm’s assessments is a dangerous route. What gets measured, gets done, so be sure to measure what you want to be done.

What level of assessments do you need?

Assessments can go on forever. At what level of detail to stop, and how to organize the audit, are critical questions to ask. Companies need to decide what works for them. They can use formal group-wide audit schemes or simple self-assessments carried out by the units themselves. Assessments can be qualitative, quantitative or both. Whatever design is chosen, we think the most important thing is to engage the people who are actually working in the unit that is being assessed. In fact, the learning that happens in the process is much more helpful than the result itself.

Multinational companies with many sites may even want to differentiate the approach for plants at different levels of lean maturity. In the Volvo Group, we have found that differentiation is needed. For plants that have barely started the lean journey, the assessments can be too harsh and even demotivating when results are unexpectedly poor. Assessments are needed at this level, but they need not be so comprehensive. For the mid-mature plants, the assessment has been most helpful. For the best plants, the assessment often offer only limited benefits; these plants are already very good and they need to seek improvement outside generic assessments of lean maturity.

Never forget the purpose of the assessment

What is the purpose of the assessment? Sometimes when people start doing assessments they fall in love with the process itself and forget about why they do so in the first place. The big point is, of course, to provide the units with a road-map to improve. Too many times the organization being assessed becomes defensive and wants to justify a score—turning it into unhealthy competition. Therefore, be careful with celebrating good scores and linking assessment scores with bonuses and fringe benefits. Instead, celebrate the real improvements in operational performance that follow from succeeding with the lean journey. The result of the assessment means nothing, if the unit being assessed does not move forward later. Assessments can be powerful, but only if deployed wisely.

Good luck with your assessments—but, most importantly, your improvement!

Source: Sanchez, E.; Netland, T.H., 2013. Lean assessments; are they needed? Lean Management Journal, Vol. 3, Iss. 8, p. 6

3 thoughts on “Lean assessments; are they needed?

  1. Excellent post. There are two comments I’d like to make, however. First, I’d like to preface this by saying that I don’t know the context surrounding the original article, such as limits on word count, article length and other considerations. I’m sure some of them are responsible for what I believe is missing. But since it has now been transferred over to your blog, I believe it was a good opportunity to include the following subjects and discuss them.
    1) I think it would have been nice to offer an explanation or an example of what you mean by a “lean assessment.” Unless you provide your own definition, readers are bound to substitute their own in its place, and people’s definitions of what a lean assessment is can vary wildly. It would have been great to nail down the definition for consistency across the literature, and to provide more context to those who are not familiar with the concept and/or methodology.
    2) It would also have been great if this blog post had offered some suggestions about where to start when one wants to institute lean assessments. When one has never done a lean assessment, it can be challenging to know where to begin. What tools should be used? Do they need to be developed in-house, or are there general or even industry-specific tools and/or processes for conducting leans assessments? Are there resources that can provide some guidance? If so, which ones?
    I believe blogs offer their writers the opportunity to freely express themselves without the usual limits imposed on articles meant to be published. So I encourage you to use this opportunity to fill in as much of the details as you reasonably can. If you blog post ends up being too long, you can always split it up into two parts. What’s important in the end is to pass on the information so that others can benefit and learn from it.
    Thank you for taking my suggestions into consideration. Keep up the interesting work.

    • Dear Fabrice, thank you for your kind comment. Your advice about accessibility of concepts is very well taken. Targeting the audience in open blog posts is always a challenge. Even more so when we write about professional and scientific literature. I think we should always make things as simple as possible. For the details about lean assessments beyond this specific post, I refer to the special issue of the Lean Management Journal. For the rest of your suggestions, I save them as good ideas for future posts. Thank you.

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