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Why Should an Organization Not Implement Lean?

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Discusses the importance of management commitment to the process and the major ways in which lean effects the jobs of all members of the management team.

Many Lean implementation efforts fail and their failure can be traced to three primary factors: First, the leadership team starts the implementation of Lean without an inspirational purpose. Second, the leadership team doesn't really understand what Lean is. Third, the leadership team isn't prepared for some of the significant ways in which their jobs must change as they implement Lean. It is better not to start the implementation of Lean processes if the organization's management team doesn't go in with a total commitment to all that Lean encompasses.

Duration: 14:27 Audio MP3
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As I've mentioned in earlier podcasts, attempts to implement Lean processes often fail. Studies conducted on the rate of failure suggest that it's between 60 and 70%. Even if the percent of failed attempts was much lower, it would still represent a tremendous cost to the organizations in which Lean failed and, in fact, to the entire country's economy. I've entitled this podcast, "Why not implement Lean?" because of my firm conviction that it is far better to never start down the Lean journey than it is to begin and then abort the effort. When this happens, not only has the company and all employees involved in the effort wasted their time and money but, more importantly, a climate of cynicism will have been created and this cynicism will stand as a very potent roadblock to future attempts to implement Lean. I've encountered this cynicism in the workforces of far more clients than should be the case. Over and over again I've heard comments from line workers such as:

"We've tried this before and it didn't work"


"Is management really serious about doing this? They weren't last time."


"Management says they're serious about changing the way they work with us. We don't believe it."

Whenever these types of cynicism and doubt develop, convincing employees that the new effort is for real becomes even more challenging. How can these roadblocks to the implementation of Lean work processes be avoided? There are three answers to this question:

  • Don't start Lean without an inspirational purpose.
  • Don't start Lean unless you're sure you understand what Lean is.
  • Don't start Lean unless you're sure that you personally are prepared to accept the changes that are going to have to happen in the way you do your work.

Let's address the first issue which is always having an inspirational purpose for starting Lean. Several months ago I heard the CEO of a major St. Louis corporation talk about his company's difficult but successful drive to implement Lean work processes. He spoke about the large number of companies that fail in their Lean journeys and made a profound observation about these failures. It was this: "The power of Lean is to engage employee's heads and hearts." And then he addressed this question: How does one engage the heart? He suggested that for this to happen the leadership of the company has to be driven by a basic set of beliefs having to do with the purpose of their work. He said that his personal ability to be a Lean leader was very much energized and focused by something said by President Woodrow Wilson, "You are here to enrich the world and you impoverish yourself if you don't see your journey in this way." He added that he tried to imbue all of his managers with the understanding that in a very real way they were stewards of their employee's lives and that implementing Lean was directly and explicitly related to improving the quality of their employees' lives. It is exactly this understanding of the ultimate purpose of work ... to enrich the lives of fellow employees ... that drives the success of Lean implementation. Without this type of inspirational purpose, maintaining the high levels of energy and focus required by managers and supervisors in Lean workplaces is just too difficult.

The second issue is equally important. It has been our experience that far too many organizations start on the Lean journey without really understanding what Lean is. Here's what they need to understand about Lean but often don't:

  1. Lean is primarily a change in the culture of an organization and secondarily, a collection of tools used to shape work processes. Far too many organizations see Lean as being 5S, Six Sigma, Value Stream Mapping, Pull Production, Visual Management, Standardized Work, and other tools having to do with how work is done. I've heard organizations say, "We want to do Six Sigma" or "I'd like to do some Kaizen events." Or "We'd like to do 5S." Statements of this sort almost always mean that the organization's leaders don't understand that "doing Six Sigma" or "doing 5S" or "doing Value Stream Mapping" as single, stand alone interventions is a waste of both time and money. Are these tools important? Yes. Can they drive change? Of course. Without being part of a unified, cohesive Lean implementation campaign, will they stick? No. Divorced from the recognition that Lean is about culture change, they can't have any lasting impact.
  2. The primary source of expertise in any organization is line workers. Managers whose training was shaped by the teachings of Frederick Taylor and his scientific management theory, have a perspective toward what their primary role should be that is at significant variance with what their role needs to be to support Lean. Taylor's theory led to companies hiring armies of industrial engineers who would go through plants conducting time and motion studies and designing work processes that workers were then supposed to follow without questioning. Lean also teaches that managers and supervisors must focus on monitoring work processes. But there is one key difference between Taylor's Scientific Management and Lean Management. It is this. In a Lean work environment it is understood that the primary source of creative thinking about how to improve work processes is the workers themselves, not some elite group of industrial engineers. The elitism that is inherent in Taylor's approach to management is absolutely inconsistent with the beliefs that are at the heart of Lean manufacturing.
  3. Lean is primarily about processes, results are secondary. Many analysts contend that the one central tenet of Toyota's culture that is responsible for its success is this: All work processes must be controlled, scientific experiments, constantly modified and improved by the people who do the work. Results are critical but the point is this: It is only through the continual observation of work processes by managers and supervisors who know what they're looking for, coupled with the ongoing analytical thinking of the people doing the work, that work processes can be improved. And, of course, only improved work processes can drive better results.

The third issue is this: How's a manager's job going to change as a result of implementing Lean?

  1. The organization's leadership team has to be committed to taking an active, highly visible role in supporting Lean.
    I've had plant managers say to me, "Just keep me briefed on how our work to implement Lean is progressing." This attitude just won't work. The plant manager is a key factor in the transition to Lean and her/his involvement must be visible and vigorous. In any organization, there will always be a number of individuals who don't believe in any form of change. These professional cynics will be continually on the lookout for evidence that the company's commitment to Lean is far less than stated. Any sign that the plant's top management is not totally supportive and involved in the transition to Lean will be interpreted as evidence that this attempt at change, like many before it, will also fade away. All managers have to be actively and effectively involved in the transition to Lean.
  2. The process of implementing Lean never ends. There is no finish line.
    Managers must remember that Lean is about the relentless pursuit of perfection ... perfection that is always pursued but never quite achieved. As soon as the pursuit of perfection ends ... as soon as the idea develops that we are finished with implementing Lean, at that moment Lean fails.
  3. The leadership team has to understand that to successfully implement Lean the focus must be on long-term gains, not short-term ROI.
    How much will productivity be increased when Lean is first implemented? Who knows, maybe none at all for a year or so. The focus has to be on the steady development of ever more productive standardized work processes created in partnership with line workers and undeterred by the demands of the moment no matter how potent. As soon as management allows a crisis to move it into a "just do it" mode, the effort to implement Lean will be seriously damaged to a degree that may make recovery impossible.
  4. The leadership team must trust line workers, treat them with respect, and be prepared to let them make mistakes. Managers must also be prepared to share the mistakes they make with line workers.

As Henry Ford taught us in his book, "My Life and Work," written in 1923 and studied by Toyota managers as a key source for those ideas that later germinated into what has become Lean manufacturing, relationships between managers and line workers are reciprocal, the manager is the partner of the worker and the worker is the partner of the manager. And partners share their defeats as well as their victories, learn from both, and continually move their organization closer to perfection. The skills and knowledge needed to effectively fill the role of leader in a transition to Lean manufacturing are not present in many managers and supervisors. In order to meet this need, St. Louis Community College has developed a Lean Leadership Certificate program, specifically designed to develop and sharpen those skills needed to support Lean work processes. This program includes eight four to six hour seminars and can be delivered on-site at times most convenient for participants. Few investments in Lean could have greater payback than this series of seminars.

Our next podcast will address the question, "How will Lean make my organization more competitive?" While Lean will make work processes more efficient, its most important impact is that it will drive higher levels of employee engagement and, as a result, maximize the organizations ROI on its most valuable asset: Its employees.

As I mentioned in previous podcasts, I'd very much appreciate the opportunity to discuss Lean with you. Please call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let's talk about it. Have a good day!