The nine characteristics of high-performing lean teams

02 November 2015

High performing lean teams are characterised by nine key factors, according to a thesis by Management Consultant Desirée van Dun. Leadership and organisational culture play an extremely important role in bringing together all of these factors into the right formula for success.

Lean management has evolved over the years from a magic word to one of the most widely used techniques in the business world. Anno 2015, lean is in virtually every industry and used in the vast majority of organisations, either in whole (process management, project management, IT processes, software development) or parts of this method, as component of continuous improvement programmes.

Lean management

As a result of the growing importance of lean, academics and researchers have in recent years dived into the phenomenon to gain insights into the implementation of lean, its maturity, best practice and more. As was the case for Desirée van Dun, advisor at House of Performance and specialist in improving performance in the workplace. As part of her PhD at the University of Twente (the Netherlands), Van Dun investigated effective leadership and team dynamics in organisations that apply lean principles*. For her thesis, Van Dun conducted four different studies: a literature study, an observational study of six Lean middle managers, a questionnaire with 429 participants and team leaders from 25 lean teams**, and five case studies of well-performing lean teams. For three consecutive years, Van Dun followed five lean teams which were all well-performing at the start of the study. To study the teams, she used data collected through shadowing, video observation, (group) interviews, and questionnaires, and by collecting the teams’ objective performance metrics.

Her long-term research shows that well-performing lean teams have a specific team dynamic that consists of specific patterns of behaviours, feelings and thoughts. Van Dun: “As well as share information and conduct performance monitoring, team members must feel safe to express themselves and discuss disagreements. And they must also be involved in the organisation’s objectives. So it requires quite a bit!” In total, Van Dun identified nine factors that collectively provide a lean team culture.

Lean Team Culture

To get all of these aspects in line, efforts are required of both managers and the entire organisation. Critical for success are the importance of a clear organisational structure, consistent HR policies and sufficient time and resources to continuously improve. Lean teams also benefit from an organisation that operates on calm seas. “When there is unrest in the organisation that persists, for example from a round of reorganisation, then this will, in the long term, have a negative effect on lean team performance in the workplace,” says Van Dun.

Managers are required to stimulate the team dynamic by listening carefully to their employees and to clearly and consistently communicate the company strategy of continuous improvement. “Senior management plays a major role in the success of lean teams in the workplace. The developed lean leadership profile of specific behaviours and values can help HR professionals to enhance their selection, training and promotion methods, and thus the leadership within their organisations,” says Van Dun.

Based on the findings in her dissertation, Van Dun believes organisations can take their lean maturity to the next level. The return on investment from lean is sometimes not obvious, yet in many cases it leads to higher performance in the workplace. Lean leadership is one of the missing links, she believes. “To achieve continuous process improvement good collaboration between team members and their managers at different organisational levels is important,” she concludes.

Desiree van Dun

Desirée van Dun (Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences, Institute for Innovation and Governance Studies) will defend her PhD on Friday, December 11th 2015 at 12:45 pm in building De Waaier, University of Twente (the Netherlands). Her research was supervised by Celeste Wilderom of the Department of Change Management and Organisational Behaviour.

* Lean is about continuously improving processes so that these add as much value as possible for the end customer.

** Lean teams are work floor departments, such as invoice processing teams and production teams who continually improve their own processes with lean methodologies.


Embracing technology can transform back office functions

24 October 2018

Organisations that successfully embrace technology can transform their back office functions, enabling them to operate more effectively and efficiently, while better catering to the needs of the business. Gillian Boston, Head of Business Consulting at global data management firm AutoRek, reflects on the tangible benefits that automation can generate.

Wherever one looks and in whatever industry sector that may be, some back office functions still appear to be operating in the dark ages. The reality is that many organisations are still reliant on manual processes and spreadsheets to fulfil their financial and regulatory obligations. In contrast, individuals do not think twice about booking flights on smartphones, using banking apps for personal finances, or shopping online. So why are some firms’ not embracing technology as readily when it comes to data management, reconciliations and financial controls?

Habitual work practices, perceived project timelines and costs, resistance or fear of change, and inexperience are some reasons why firms continue to support labour intensive processes and procedures. The average tenure of a chief operating officer (COO) is typically three years, which tends to discourage medium and long term planning that is needed for transformational projects. ‘If it’s not broken don’t fix it’ also springs to mind, but arguably these reasons are far outweighed by the benefits that automation brings.

The reality is that economic and competitor demands, increases in data complexity and volumes, continued speed of regulatory change and enhanced scrutiny from external audits are key factors that demand the effective and efficient workings of back office functions.

Embracing technology can transform back office functions

Over-reliance on spreadsheets

Regulators and auditors are becoming less tolerant of spreadsheets, and there are four very good reasons as to why this is the case:

·         Auditability – every data interaction should be date and time stamped against a user profile, which is impossible to do on a spreadsheet. The ability to go back to a point in time is a necessity – again challenging in particular if there are macros embedded in spreadsheets.

·         Automation – spreadsheets are wide open to manual intervention and user error. Macros can help to execute actions, but are typically poorly controlled and are only understood by the writer of the macro - in other words, macros are 'keyman' dependent.

·         Volume – spreadsheets have volume limitations and do not perform well as volumes grow. Key controls on workbooks that have thousands of rows and multiple columns with complex, poorly understood macros are not sustainable, maintainable or readily auditable. They will break at some point.

·         Version control – despite the reliance on shared drives, spreadsheets are prone to suffer versioning and multi-access issues. Couple that with spreadsheets being poorly backed up and existing on local hard drives, and again the susceptibility to the lack of control is magnified.

Quality, speed and flexibility – these are words that are not synonymous with manual, error-prone processes that often lead to the working of substantial backlogs.

Tangible benefits

It is however no secret that by embracing technology, employees can be redeployed to undertake more valuable work and they can learn new and increasingly important technical skills. What ensues is much more efficient and effective work practices, leading to growth in performance and an overall reduction in operating costs. From management of high volumes of data and reduction in fast-close processes to mitigation of operational and regulatory risk – robust automated solutions enhance controls and deliver efficiencies.

Integrity and validation of data, powerful automated reconciliations, workflow and case management, and timely and meaningful management information (MI) are all ‘must haves’ for sustainable and scalable solutions. Configured correctly, MI can be such a powerful bi-product supporting strategic decision making and the allocation of resources.

If people are continually faced with the manual amalgamation and consolidation of data from disparate systems, what individuals really need is transparency of data, good governance and robust audit trails to meet challenging reporting requirements. It is not unheard of that a process that previously took a week to complete, now takes little more than an hour from start to finish thanks to automation.

Embracing technology

There are countless headlines and articles on innovation in respect to processing, managing and working with data. 2018 is proving to be the year of RegTech, FinTech, digitisation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and technological revamp. The return on investment on an automation project is much quicker these days and as a result COOs are starting to act. The ability to replace tactical solutions with long-term strategic solutions, which take a more holistic approach to data management, stands firms in good stead and allows them to not only grow but to embrace the inevitable ongoing challenges of financial control and regulatory requirements.