John Shook, president of the Lean Enterprise Institute, is among those who describe Lean or the Toyota Production System as being neither top-down and bottom-up. It’s not about the boss telling people what to do and it’s not a system where employees are empowered to do whatever they want. An effective culture and management system has elements of top-down AND bottom-up communication, decisions, and improvement. Leaders tend to communicate the “why” of improvement, while those lower in the organization tend to figure out “what” and “how” to improve.
Here are 4 differences between top down and bottom up improvement.
The first difference between top-down and bottom-up improvement lies in who initiates the efforts. In top-down improvement, senior leaders identify key organizational goals and then engage staff as necessary to achieve those goals through projects, kaizen events, or other improvement activities. For example, the VP of Quality may decided that a waste walk is in order to figure out the cause of product imperfections. Her goal is to improve quality using a waste walk, and this goal is achieved by engaging others who are more involved in the production process.
Bottom-up improvements, on the other hand, begin with staff and managers. These people notice opportunities for improvement in their daily work - perhaps they find a way to make their job more enjoyable, their work more efficient, or to provide a better service to their customers. When implemented, these ideas contribute to the overall health of the organization, even though they were not identified as part of a larger, top-down initiative.
Because top-down improvement typically comes in the form of projects or events, the number of participants is limited. For example, a leader may assemble a team of two managers and five front-line employees from different areas to conduct a VSM event.
The goal of bottom-up improvement is to include every person, at every level of the organization. Each employee looks for ways to improve their work on a daily basis, regardless of their location, shift, and function, resulting in a culture of continuous improvement.
I just hinted at this concept, but it’s important enough that I think it’s necessary that we take a moment to highlight it. While top-down improvement takes place in scheduled, episodic activities - like a weeklong event - bottom-up improvement happens all day, every day. Do you see an opportunity for improvement on your way to lunch? Log that. See a safety concern as you walk out the door? Log that too. When we get good at seeing problems or identifying waste, we’ll see it every day, even after a lot of improvement has already taken place.
You might have figured this one out already. Is it top-down or bottom-up improvement that takes on big challenges? You guessed it - when you have a big problem that’s jonesing for a major overhaul, top-down improvement is where you want to look. These are typically higher cost and higher risk, so there’s a lot of research and planning that goes into them ahead of time. Even if management decides “what” needs to be improved, your employees and managers will need to be involved to figure out the details of the “what” and the “how.” Leaders can’t pretend to know or figure out every detail on their own. They can’t give employees all of the answers. But leaders can set direction and inspire people to participate in driving these major changes.
On the other hand, bottom-up improvements are typically small, low-cost, low-risk changes that front line staff are able to implement on their own or within their team. The role of leaders here is to provide the coaching necessary to make sure that people stay on the right track, but they don’t really need to get too involved in the process.
What’s your view about Lean or your favorite improvement methodology? Is it both top-down and bottom-up or is it neither? How do you and your organization strike that balance today? How does it need to be in the future? Leave a comment and let us know.