I’ve written before about how my own lack of knowledge and expertise helped me lead warehouse employees in reducing lead time for picking, packing, and shipping customer orders by one-third. Because I don’t know that much about warehouses, I simply encouraged them to walk through the shipping process and look for places where people were waiting for information or materials. I was nothing more than a guide, asking naïve questions about how things worked—they were the creative thinkers, identifying alternate (and better) ways of working. They owned the changes, and to this day—almost a year later—they’ve sustained the improvement.

But even though I know that workers have to own their improvements, I don’t always follow that rule. A few months ago I was working with a product development team that was getting killed by loopbacks and rework in their design and development process. They’d develop a product (or even packaging for a product) and somewhere long past a stage gate, sales or operations or finance would ask for a redesign to better meet customer, warehouse, or financial needs.

Why did those changes happen after the stage gates? From my analysis, the root cause was a lack of clarity around decision rights and responsibilities throughout the process—who is consulted for input, who needs to be informed, who makes the final decision, etc. Standard RACI stuff.

So I implemented a RACI system for the major workflows in product development and waited for cheers of joy when my brilliant countermeasure solved all problems. And waited. And waited.

Three months later, I asked the head of product development how things were going. He told me they weren’t. The team tried my system but it never took root. The stage gate meetings weren't held regularly, people didn’t remember what their roles were at key points in the process, and after a little while, they abandoned my countermeasure. They’re back to where they started.

I’m pretty certain that my approach would have solved the loopback/rework problem if they followed it. But—it was MY solution. Not theirs. They didn’t own it. Which means that the likelihood of the countermeasure sticking was about the same as the chance that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo could win an Emmy Award for journalism.

Mark Rosenthal puzzled why so many organizations plateaued in their pursuit of lean. He found that experts

were essentially pushing them [managers] aside and “fixing” things, then turning the newly “leaned” area over to the supervisors and first line managers who, at most, might have participated in the workshop and helped move things around. So it really should be no surprise that come Monday morning, when the inevitable forces of entropy showed up, that things started to erode.

That pretty much describes what I did. The forces of entropy took longer in my case, but everything eroded just the same.

I’m happy to report that the head of product development and his team are now working on a new approach to reducing loopbacks. I’m confident they’ll succeed. Without me.