by Don Kennedy, Ph.D., P.Eng., CPEM, FASEM
Throughout my career, I have noticed certain fads come and go while I continue more or less doing the same things day in and day out relating to heavy industrial construction contracts. In the early 1990s there was a focus on Continuous Improvement and / or Total Quality Management. At some point I noticed that the Continuous Improvement department at my employer was no longer listed in the phone directory. Then there was a push for Team Building and working as a cohesive unit. At the same time, my then employer moved to treating individual departments as separate “business units” where they had internal customers and parallel functional departments such as HR and procurement for each business unit. Outsourcing non-core competencies became a thing around 2000 along with flattening the organization. I noticed the latter had definitely died at my then employer in 2005 when another reorganization increased the number of vice presidents from 30 to 215. Six Sigma was talked about often at ASEM conferences in the mid 2000s along with ISO 9001. My employer was a big promoter of ISO 9001 from 2007 to 2010 at which time they went bankrupt and I moved on. Concurrent engineering was popular in the mid 2000’s, and when I found a new employer in 2010 I noticed a new trend to proceed in the opposite direction. I had not heard of Stage Gates prior but I definitely learned fast what the concept was. Perhaps there were issues with concurrent processes when fully developed plans were found to be unfeasible for some reason and the sunk cost was deemed unacceptable when a project had to back up and redo work. This was seen to be solved by having gates at defined stages prohibiting any work from starting until prior steps were completed and approved. In the mid 2010s, focus shifted at my then employer to alignment of culture among the workers. We were trained on leadership skills, providing feedback and achieving key performance indicators. Although that employer went bankrupt, I see these initiatives going on in recent workplaces as well.
Throughout all of this, I have heard of Lean Management and have browsed many articles on the subject. One of the key failures in the adoption of Lean is the basic assumption that the potential long term benefits of Lean to an organization will appeal to the people within it. An underlying truth in management theories is that people are generally motivated to do what benefits themselves personally, for example money, power or perks. The pitch for Lean has followed the idea that if you show someone how profits and organizational health will benefit in the long term, they will be sold and become adopters of the new philosophy. Traditional Management will continue to dominate until and unless the pitch for Lean can focus on how taking on the risk of a new way to operate will benefit the decision maker personally and not solely on organizational performance.
About the Author
Dr. Don Kennedy is a fellow of ASEM. He works mostly in heavy industrial construction. Many readers will know that Don has struggled to stay employed at one organization for very long. He is pleased to announce that he reached his 14th month work anniversary with his current employer at the time of this publication. “Improving Your Life at Work” is Don Kennedy's ebook which includes a lengthy bibliography for people looking for references on management theory.