How to fail with Lean
There are many ways to fail with your lean transformation. Below are some suggestions based on my experience, please feel free to steal with pride!
First, don’t involve line management. Outsource it to external consultants that set up camp in your organisation. For best effect, ensure that they are young, ambitious and work with a pre-defined sequence and in too short a time frame for lean implementation. This was actually my first exposure to business transformations in 1992, as a young consultant with a Hugo Boss outlet suit. A learning and humbling experience.
Another more internal based approach is to hire a bunch of internal lean champions and make them responsible for the implementation. Give them time to create internal based simulations and class-room training. To make it more modern and cost-effective you can make use of state-of-the art e-learning portals. Mass train everyone and then wait to see if change will spontaneously happen. You can always spice it up with some slogans and motivational posters with lean principles. The worst I’ve seen here is when a marketing agency was involved in the lean transformation and they wanted to create manga series (Japanese comics) with a superhero Mr. Leany dressed up as a real-life character. Luckily, it never left the idea stage! Another common mistake is when the central team puts a lot of time to define a one size fits all approach but works for no-one structure or template. It can be a daily meeting whiteboard, target measurements, leader standards, which they then try to roll out in the organisation globally and most often only leads to frustration and management theatre.
The most common way to fail has probably been on implementing lean tools. There are an abundance of great lean tools to choose from, many of which are visible when visiting Toyota in Japan or other Lean model companies. To make it more sophisticated you can learn their Japanese name in original and for the real advanced their Japanese writing sign. Create tool audits to make sure tools are adhered too. In the 90s I was actually taught that one should always start with 5S and keep working with it for some years to create discipline before doing anything else. In the best of worlds, it might bring benefits but my experience is that no organisation will sustain the transformation. Another approach to intensify the work with tools is to do it as kaizen blitz i.e. week-long breakthrough events. This used to be quite trendy in the US and was a perfect way for optimising lean experts’ travel schedule so they could stay at one place during the week.
Another common approach for those that have failed with the tool-based approach is to focus more on principles. They make the aim of the lean transformation to implement XPS, i.e. company X’s Production system that usually is based on TPS (Toyota Production System). By defining your XPS and working long-term with these principles the results should hopefully follow someday.
Recently, I was helping pro-bono a church with some lean thinking and setting up a pulse meeting in their parish. Their transformation had been going one for some time and the leader had plans for rebuilding churches, selling parish houses and standardising the baptisation process. The staff eventually said no, it was too much and too fast for them. In after-thought, it is understandable in an environment where the focus for some thousand years has been on preservation. This illustrates how leader motivation and determination is important, but the engagement of the team and personnel is paramount.
My aim of this article is not to belittle Lean. For me, personally it is The Way to achieve world-class results in any organisation. That’s why I think it is crucial for companies to plan not only what they want to achieve with their lean transformation but also how they will run their transformation. Also, there is great learning from failures - not everything can be foreseen and without doing, there will be no learning.
My learning so far from working with Lean for over 28 years in diverse areas such as healthcare, media, IT, service, public sector in more than 15 countries where I’ve experienced some great sustainable and continued results are the following.
Start with the organisation’s purpose and unique challenges which lie head, remember that lean does not have a purpose on its own. Define which results you want to achieve; a good starting point here is the customer and to focus on performance on quality and lead time.This should be defined and deployed by the leadership. Then pull in the lean methods and principles needed to achieve those results. Start with training and letting line management define their current state for flow. They can assess their current operational framework from shop floor to management and reflect on their structure of continuous improvement. Involve people working in the flow in the current state description. Let the organisation define their future state and challenge it. Ensure there is a team-based organisation. Work with a pilot which should be an important end-to-end part of the organisation. Try not to change everything at once. Train on the job and learn by doing. Set up a governance structure which can be run by a global lean team. This can include a situational toll-gate structure for steps in the lean transformation and following up of results. Pulse training of line management continuously but low-intensive. Be persistent and remember that change is epidemic, i.e. results do not happen linear with work effort.
This is just one way of working with Lean transformation. It is not rocket science but something my colleague Pia and I started with in the 90s and have subsequently learnt, developed and realised results with 3 Swedish lean prize winners. Currently, we are assisting a global organisation with implementing lean in 10 of their factories.
Good luck with your Lean transformation!
About the Author