All manufacturers face a daily managerial tug of war about how to communicate what’s important to efficiently and profitably move their business forward and — just as essential — whether they’ve clearly communicated the details of those priorities to everybody involved, from the leadership team to the manufacturing floor. Consider the overwhelming lesson learned from manufacturers in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of ongoing, timely and consistent communication to customers and employees. Few executives will disagree that they are better served when all employees clearly understand what they are supposed to be doing and why, in precise terms. What they need to discover is the art of getting it done.

A company’s leadership team can solve this challenge through what I call “Daily Dialogue,” a formal communication process providing clarity and purpose for everybody in the company. Companies that live by Daily Dialogue won’t be surprised by rampant inefficiencies throughout the plant caused by employees or managers who are unclear about the company’s priorities.

Greg Langfield, Enterprise Minnesota
Continuous improvement expert Greg Langfield.

Before I get into the details, I urge leadership teams to first consider how a formal approach to continuous improvement will help them in the long haul. Too often continuous improvement is thought of as an initiative — with a defined beginning and end. This will yield some short-term results, without making any long-term progress toward sustainability. The maximum value comes from embedding continuous improvement into your company’s culture, thus making Daily Dialogue a permanent fixture in your management routine.

Second, always remember that Daily Dialogue is about leaders developing their people. Lean expert and author John Shook defines it like this: “Get the job done and develop your people.” This is excellent advice. Most of my clients are skilled at getting the job done, in other words keeping their customers happy. They know that’s why they exist. They know the value of responsive customer service and why they need to get it right the first time. But they frequently struggle with the second half of Shook’s mantra. That’s where Daily Dialogue becomes essential. It focuses on leadership skill development to support employees in improving their processes to get the job done.

Manufacturing guru George Koenigsaecker is even more precise when he describes it as “continuous improvement through people.” He means the connection through people is the only model that sustains continuous improvement in an organization. This places the emphasis on skill development within leadership to engage those employees to make a difference in how they think about their work and think about their day-to-day interactions. There is a direct connection between leaders developing their skills in Daily Dialogue, which then connects to the skill development in employees to get the job done through improved processes that make their work easier, better and faster.

Daily Dialogue: Infrastructure

This article is about building the necessary infrastructure to conduct a Daily Dialogue. When we talk about building infrastructure, this is meant to mean constructing a process around a 4-feet by 6-feet white board that is located where the work is being done, such as engineering, customer service and on the production floor. To support the building of the Daily Dialogue infrastructure, we will be asking and answering three questions.

  • What matters — today?
  • What is being learned — today?
  • What actions am I taking — today?

What Matters Today?

The foundation of Daily Dialogue consists of the leadership team’s clear sense of the company’s identity, purpose and direction. Think of this as establishing the company’s “True North.” The True North points the way forward and provides clarity through organizational alignment of what is truly important. For most organizations, this is expressed through their vision, mission and values.

Most companies with strong clarity around their True North realized the value of this as they first confronted the myriad challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. About eight weeks after the government declared a national emergency, I visited with one executive about how well his company was dealing with these challenges. He said that while the company experienced an immediate loss of business, they leaned on their clear sense of vision, mission and values to guide them through some difficult decisions. It didn’t make the decisions any easier, but it did provide clarity to know that they were making the right decisions.

Every organization has a True North, but what matters is how leaders communicate and live the vision, mission and values, thus providing organizational clarity about “what is important” through all levels of the organization. This means that, to be effective, the application of True North needs to cascade through the different organizational levels so every employee finds purpose in his or her daily work.

Within the application of Lean Thinking, five categories define this purpose and direction in terms of supporting employee and customer satisfaction. For employee satisfaction, this is identified through defining safety and employee development measures. For customer satisfaction, it is defined through quality, delivery/lead time and cost/productivity measures. Once we establish strong employee and customer satisfaction, it can naturally be expected that business satisfaction will occur. This connection of True North to the five Lean Thinking categories provides the structure for all employees to know “what matters today.” In the building of Daily Dialogue through the use of the white board, True North is at the top, with the placement of the five Lean Thinking categories underneath.

What Is Being Learned Today?

We need to think in terms of goals, which within the context of Daily Dialogue are the critical few activities that must be accomplished today. Lean Thinking provides the framework for establishing goals based on activities that define a good day in terms of employee and customer satisfaction. This connection to having a good day supports the sense of accomplishment everyone experiences when their day felt productive. However, Lean Thinking doesn’t stop there. It strives forward with the goal of going from a good day to a better day. This then becomes the goal of what must be accomplished today to “make a good day into a better day.”

To be effective in achieving that goal, the first question (“What matters today?”) needs to be answered at the highest organizational level to provide the necessary alignment and connections. As discussed previously, this provides the alignment through the organization to support accomplishing those daily activities that will support the achievement of the organization’s goals. Stated another way, this is how the organization’s strategic direction is cascaded down to the lowest level, making the connection with employees about how their day-to-day efforts support achieving the larger organizational goals.

With the goal established to “make a good day into a better day,” the next step is measuring the goal. Measurements show manufacturers how well their businesses are performing and, just as important, how well their processes are supporting the overall organization. While measuring is essential, it is not without challenges, pitfalls and traps. Author W. Bruce Cameron is credited with the idea that not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. Our information age enables us to pull lots of data from an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, yet what are we learning? Likewise, there are just some things we can’t measure, such as trust between the employees and leaders.

With this paradox around measures, the right path forward is not always obvious. Let me explain through two examples.

I was waiting in a client’s lobby not long ago when I noticed a wall plaque declaring the company had achieved 100% on-time deliveries the previous year. That’s perfection! And then I saw another plaque, to the right of the first one, that proclaimed the company had also achieved 100% on-time deliveries in the previous year. Wow! That’s exceptional, and it clearly communicated what was important to the company. But as I got to know that client better, I realized that their product lead time was 25% longer than their competitor’s lead time. The measurement trap was relying on one measurement to tell the story of their ability to meet customer expectations. A better approach would be balancing on-time delivery with additional measurements, such as lead time and schedule attainment, to tell a comprehensive story of their ability to meet customer expectations. Just like in geometry three points make a plane, using three measurements around a singular theme such as customer satisfaction will provide leaders with valuable insight into their organization’s performance.

Likewise, an owner of another manufacturer described a different kind of measurement. He likes looking at the parking lot to see how many cars there are, and how new they are. Through this measurement, he was stating it was important to him that his company provides meaningful wages, that the employees are able to afford new vehicles, and that the wages and vehicle purchases supported the greater community. This owner conceived of a measure that clearly communicated what was important to him along with the organization’s intrinsic impact on the community. This is a very simple measurement, yet it tells a very powerful story.

These two stories reflect that while measurements are often not perfect, they can be meaningful when painting a complete picture. The temptation may be to wait until the perfect measures are identified and then roll them out. Lean Thinking provides insight into starting with “good” measures and then continuing to refine them. What this means for Daily Dialogue is that we need to define the measurements around the five categories based on measurements that are readily known and applicable by those in the work area. This means stay out of the ERP system and go with measurements communicated through red or green marks. Based on the goal “to make a good day into a better day,” a safety goal is to have everyone work safely. When this occurs, it’s a “green” day. When we use visuals of red/green, it clearly communicates if employees are having good days, and what opportunities there are to have better days. This visual communication of Daily Dialogue provides the answer to the second question — “What is being learned today?” When we have “green” days within our five categories of Daily Dialogue, we learn we can celebrate success! And when we have some “red” days within our five categories of Daily Dialogue, we learn we have opportunities to make today a better day. I once had a client tell me he never realized how simple and powerful communication could be through the use of red and green dots as part of their Daily Dialogue. Don’t believe him? Give it a try!

In constructing our Daily Dialogue process through the use of a white board, we now get to add our goal “to make a good day into a better day,” which is represented by having a goal for each of the five categories of Safety, Quality, Delivery/Lead Time, Cost/Productivity and Employee Development. To make sure everyone knows the status of achieving the goal, the use of red/green dots is used to clearly communicate success and opportunities for improvement.

What Actions Am I Taking Today?

The final question is a personal one. As a leader, are you seen by others as someone who lives continuous improvement through actions? Sometimes forgotten is that continuous improvement is about our actions first, and then the actions of others. Through Daily Dialogue, continuous improvement actions from the leader are necessary to support actions in others. It is through actions that true learning occurs, allowing further actions to be taken. There are no short cuts.

The good thing is that within Daily Dialogue, continuous improvement actions are seen as small, incremental steps. Little steps may seem insignificant, but they will make a difference. For example, a little step could be an action that would save two seconds in a process step. By the time you read that sentence, those two seconds are gone. Two seconds seem so insignificant and hardly worth the effort. But the focus of this question is actions. And through those actions, learning occurs. Therefore, those two seconds mean the employee used his or her knowledge and skill to make the process better. That will lead to other actions to further improve the process, and now we have compounded seconds of learning that lead to minutes, hours and then to a day’s worth of improvements.

So, if all we must do is take action through little steps, what obstacles get in our way from doing it?

The big obstacle is time. Every day we are challenged to somehow find time for those things that are important. Remember that we started with our first question — “What matters today?” If continuous improvement is down on the list of priorities, the day we find time to support continuous improvement will never come. As leaders, our words and actions speak to others about what is important every day, no matter what may be written on our bulletin boards or put in our employee handbook. If continuous improvement is important for the organization, the excuse of not having time for it can be a symptom of conflicting priorities. If this is the case, success will depend on going back to “what matters” and having agreement and alignment throughout the organization.

The next major obstacle is having the necessary skills in problem solving. Most organizations, in my experience, think they are good at problem solving. But we must consider that critically. You don’t solve a problem by merely creating a workaround. Thankfully, Lean Thinking provides a customer-focused methodology that supports developing employees’ skills in problem solving. All we have to do is focus on processes.

I always assume every employee shows up every day to be productive. The challenge is that, across many manufacturing organizations, we have an overabundance of poor processes. For example, how common is it in your organization for you to rely on tribal knowledge to make all or portions of a process work? Another example is the amount of verbal communication necessary to specify what needs to be done next or who needs to go where. These are symptoms of processes that do not support employees being productive. Within Lean Thinking, the focus is on those process steps that add value to the customer. Stated another way, Lean Thinking teaches us to think our processes exist to satisfy customer requirements. Therefore, it is natural that only the customer determines what value is. Those process steps that transform information or transform raw materials into something the customer values are considered value add.

Lean identifies “wastes” as those process steps that don’t add value or that consume resources without adding value. A thought-process tool in lean called D.O.W.N.T.I.M.E. helps companies analyze these obstacles. From the employee’s perspective, he or she feels these “wastes” every day through rework, missing information, waiting and excessive motion, to name a few. For example, if I create a defect, I feel bad for how it might affect others. At the same time, if I’m fixing somebody else’s defect again and again, I’m starting to get frustrated. If it continues to happen, especially after making a leader aware of it multiple times, I start to get angry. Then really angry. These “wastes” create tension in the workplace due to frustration, finger pointing and an “us against them” mentality. They consume valuable time and keep employees “busy” rather than productive. For this reason, skill development of employees in seeing value add steps and non-value add steps in their process is the foundation for problem solving. When employees are aware of these wastes through what they feel and what they see, opportunities exist to build skills to take actions to eliminate them. This is the skill development Lean Thinking provides, not only to the employees but to all leaders within the organization. This skill development is commonly called “learning to see,” and it is so powerful not only in the workplace but in everyone’s life.

So far, we have addressed the lack of time and the lack of problem-solving skills as obstacles to continuous improvement. It may seem like they are two separate obstacles, but in actuality they are joined at the hip. When we devote a small amount of time to Daily Dialogue, we receive this time back through small improvements in our processes. From the employee’s perspective, he or she will have fewer daily frustrations, know what is important to make informed decisions, and become more productive. This is the return on investment of time that provides the framework for employees to accomplish more through easier, better and faster processes. The challenge comes with how to take the first step and overcome the inertia of the daily grind, doing the same old thing day after day.

This is where Daily Dialogue focuses on leaders’ daily actions. Leaders at all levels of the organization need to be seen as change agents. They need to take a chance on making a change. Their examples in making small changes to improve processes will provide the path forward for employees to also take a chance on change. As mentioned above, continuous improvement is a personal commitment first, then we focus on others.

To support the building of the infrastructure in this section, examples of the eight wastes using a story board approach are posted on the white board. By answering the three main questions, we now have constructed the Daily Dialogue board, starting at the top with “What matters today?” and ending at the bottom with the eight wastes. Through this visual connection of True North to the eight wastes, the focus is to lead through small daily actions to support the goal of “making a good day into a better day.” Congratulations, the building of Daily Dialogue is complete. Now it just needs to be sustained.


Manufacturers face change and uncertainty ahead. Perhaps what we learned so far about the need for a strong communication process is one piece to reduce the risk of this uncertainty. Thankfully, Lean Thinking provides a structure through the application of Daily Dialogue as one important piece of the communication process. What we’ve learned through answering the three questions is that Daily Dialogue needs connections to be effective — connections to how the business is managed through defining what is important, having daily goals that are visual, and taking action, all within the role of being a leader. So, the path forward may not be all that clear, yet as leaders, we can take a chance on change and start implementing Daily Dialogue.

Featured story in the Winter 2020 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine. 

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