The Emphasis on Flow in “Lean” Principles Should be found in Leadership

During my 21 years in aviation and especially the 15 years in jet engine research and development, I have come to understand the importance of flow. Whether one is dealing with air frame aerodynamics, the core flow of turbine engines or the multiple applications of fluid dynamics within fuel, pneumatic, hydraulic and lubrication lines, flow is the key. Disrupt the flow in aerodynamics and efficiency spirals down. Disrupt the flow in fluid dynamics and the whole aircraft may spiral down. The core principle of “Lean” thinking is also flow. In manufacturing as well as aerospace R & D, flow is the key.

Now as I find myself in the production/manufacturing world, I am beginning to understand more fully the importance of flow within the ranks of upper, mid and lower management as well. Production line flow has become somewhat of an obsession with me. I get a huge kick out of walking the whole line on my shift and looking for bottlenecks or potential ones. While conversing with operators and production mechanics (all the while sharing the vision of flow) it is extremely gratifying to see the light bulb come on and ownership of one’s operation take hold. To then see operators and production mechanics going out of their way to keep the flow going brings pure satisfaction. I realize at that moment that a real team has been born.

Smooth transitions or flow within a shift’s production line however, I find is often directly connected to the relationships within leadership.  I have found that the flow within interactions of leadership will make or break the potential of a production line. With all the behind the scenes decisions, interactions, customer expectations, training, personal issues, and just daily problem solving, I understand fully the struggle to become a seamless operation at the top. At the peak of my understanding however, a truth keeps blasting through. Flow is the key. In the same way that air flow is vital in an engine core and around the air frame of an aircraft, flow is just as important through the core and structure of leadership. It has been alarming sometimes to see the disruption of flow within leadership in product development and product manufacturing.

Within manufacturing leadership there is usually an understanding of the importance of flow in production lines, yet we often find it difficult to truly flow together as supervisors within different departments, shifts and job titles. Within the core of leadership at many manufacturing plants, there is often a memory wipe of what really is important to that particular factory. What goes out the door is important.  What leaves the dock is really the end game of what we do in manufacturing. The sale of that end product is what keeps the factory doors open. It’s what pays the overhead bills and the salaries and ultimately supports the society in which we live in. Paychecks and direct deposits within manufacturing to be sure, vary in size. Where they come from however, is the same. The sale and delivery of the product is what provides them, sustains them and grows or shrinks them.

I have seen at an alarming rate supervisors, managers, cell leaders and team leaders lose track of what it is that they should be focused on daily. The creation of personal kingdoms, traditional practices, job security or competition within leadership (although seldom admitted) often becomes the focus rather than the flow of the product. I have seen cell leaders recruiting hourly employees from different shifts to their own shift, only to put them in a different operation from where they excelled on the other shift. I have witnessed department heads stubbornly refusing to help other departments simply because they didn’t feel revered or appreciated by the requester. I have cringed at shift supervisors talking down other shift supervisors in front of the hourly employees who work for the one they are talking down. I have been on the receiving end of upper management propagating the idea of one superior shift, while referring to the other shifts as “off shifts” not in terminology only, but seen in the lack of resources that are given to the “off shifts”. It is often maddening to see the disruption of flow within leadership especially when you are very familiar with what that disruption brings. It brings the loss of efficiency at best or at worst the loss of the whole operation.

It is extremely refreshing to see and be a part of a leadership team that flows smoothly within an organization and it is extremely draining to see and be a part of one where disruption of flow is the norm. The change from disruption of flow to smooth flow I have found comes from the very source that I can control. That source is me. The choices I make are where to begin. I can choose (regardless of what I experience) to focus on what is really important in leadership. I can choose to help no matter how I am asked. I can choose to see the importance of each shift as a leg of a triangular table and work to build strong and talented teams on all shifts, not just focus on one. I can choose to build up and support other cell leaders and never talk them down to the very people they are trying to lead. I can choose to take off blinders of tradition, job security and personal gain for the bigger picture; and I can choose to become a team player not in word only, but in deeds that are felt by all members of that team. In short, I can choose to bring change by example in the hope that the example will be infectious.  The flow of leadership in any manufacturing plant, production line, R & D facility or organization has to start somewhere. The stagnant air must be moved out by a breath of fresh air that flows from the top down or from the bottom up. No matter where we find ourselves within the flow, our choices will either continue the stagnation or bring the breeze.

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