What is the Key to Lean Success?

By Mike Niedenthal on June 6, 2017

“Lean is a set of beautiful ideas. Are we doing enough to get them across?”

John Shook, CEO of the Lean Enterprise Institute

The effectiveness of lean ideas no longer needs proving:  we now have twenty years of case studies from across all industries and continents, as well as Toyota’s continuing success, demonstrating that lean thinking is a clear path to superior performance.

Yet it is puzzling to see how few companies succeed at lean, while too many others botch their attempts.  Reasons abound why so many organizations fail in sustaining their lean initiatives or worse, fail to embrace lean at all.  Is it because:

Value stream managers cherry-pick lean tools and adapt them to their short-term line-by-line cost cutting views of the world?
Lean leaders “Improve” processes and design work for people and make them execute it with little if any development of the individual?
Companies adopt lean piece meal but get little out of it aside from early low-hanging fruit, turning this alternative way of thinking into yet another corporate initiative?

To be honest, it is because of these and, unfortunately, too many other reasons.  So, if there are these and so many other reasons we may fail at lean,  let me ask you this, ”What are some of the keys to lean success?”

One of the most important keys to success is that you must accept that Lean is an integral part of your business strategy, a foundational core of everything that you are planning to do.  However, let me be clear, Lean cannot be viewed as just one of the many elements of your strategy.  It must be a foundational core of everything you are trying to do.  To quote noted Lean expert Art Byrne, “Don’t just do Lean; be Lean.”

Secondly, we need to recognize some of the hard truths about Lean and the impact these truths have on our ability to lead change.  There is little debate that effective leadership is at the center of a successful Lean implementation.  However, the reality is that it is very hard to do.  First, transforming your business practices and processes (work/information flows, physical layout, etc.) into a Lean configuration where wastes and inefficiencies are visible for all to see and eliminate will take a very big effort, sometimes spanning several years!  Second, everyone won’t see things the same way, creating resistance throughout your organization, especially at the middle management/supervisory levels.  This is not an effort that can be delegated – there must be strong leadership, leadership that has a clear set of goals and leadership that is actively driving the change.  This reality can be daunting, but fighting it won’t change the situation, it will just make you miserable!

While these keys to Lean success are of utmost importance, they are not enough.  We must always understand that this is about our people, those who do the work and who have the best ideas for improvement.  We’ll explore this key to Lean success in a future blog.