“Lean” (also known as “Lean Manufacturing” or “Lean Production”) is defined as a production practice that follows the principle that use of resources, both human or material, for any purpose other than the adding of value for the product/service is a form of waste that should be eliminated. To pursue world-class results, many companies large and small over the past 30 years have tried lean manufacturing or lean healthcare, only to be disappointed with the results. The most common reason “lean” fails is that those organizations fail to replace their management system around “lean” improvement: solved problems. Failure to replace your current management system completely with an actual continuous improvement system—one that permeates every operation from sales to finance—will only frustrate the organization. The problem with not replacing the management system wholesale is that, instead, organizations have tried to add pieces and parts of a continuous improvement system – tools like kanban and andon – to our existing, broken processes and operating systems. The result ranges from limited, localized successes to total failures. Frustrations abound: executives who are confused with the results and frontline leaders and workers who have to make production and do lean things are confused about which has priority. Here are three questions for discerning the health of your lean system.
- Is the lean system slotted as a program under the operational leadership of someone once or twice removed from the senior leader? If the answer is yes, then lean is probably just a program as opposed to a strategy. Think about it this way: Imagine deciding that you were going to switch from Windows to Mac OS. That kind of switch affects every part of your computer use, right? An organizational management system is like the operating system on a computer. Like operating systems, management systems have logic and make pathways for decisions. Replacing the management system wholesale is like replacing the operating system on your computer. Sure, you might delegate the technical swap out of the machines, but no one can muddle through the new operating system for you. In the same way, no one would be able to muddle through the replacement of an organizational management system except the very top of the organization. If “lean” is once or twice removed from the top leadership of the organization, you may have a problem.
- Is the purpose of lean to eliminate waste? I realize this gets a bit philosophical – isn’t all leadership philosophical to a degree? If your answer was yes, either a) your lean system is very mature and everyone, every day is using problem-solving to eliminate waste or b) your lean system is still in diapers, and only a few people know that lean is geared towards solving problems where the elimination of waste is the byproduct. Tricky question, but critical to understanding your current condition. By the way: the purpose is quite multi-faceted, and we’ve tried to steer away from calling “it” lean. When we have to, though, we stick to our guns and insist that problem solving is in the center of it all.
- Is there a buzz in the organization that “this too shall pass”? Has the organization begun to explore what I call “lean plus” strategies: lean sigma, agile, scrum, etc.? Is part of your senior leadership simply waiting it out until the buzz dies or the initiating leader moves on? If the answer is yes, your lean system has probably been an “add-on” to your “old way” of thinking management system. Instead of replacing that old system, you’ve tried to take lean ideas and bolt them on, like those weird things on the side of Frankenstein’s monster’s neck (what were those for anyway??). Instead of simplifying things for your leaders (one of the responsibilities of leadership) you may have complicated things.
Let’s do some quick scoring. You get a 1 for a no and a 0 for a yes.
3 – You have a lot of things going right. Your leadership is executing lean as a strategy with problem-solving in the center, and your culture has started to shift.
2 – Not bad. If we had to guess, you probably said “yes” to number 3. If that is you, try returning to the “why” the purpose for lean as a strategy.
1 – Ugh. You probably said “yes” to 1 and 3, not realizing that Question 2 is a trick question.
0 – Stop reading this and call us.