This Can Happen to You…

Imagine this. Executives in your company hear about lean, read up on it, and become enamoured in the potential cost savings. Managers start talking and words like “kaizen” and “muda” start floating around the break room. Several meetings happen where an external consultant discusses processes and continual improvement. Whiteboards with coloured sticky notes pop up around the office.

For a few months it goes extremely well. The executives start invigorating morning meetings that get everyone thinking about finding waste. Inventory levels shrink, the hammers in the shop are outlined with bright tape to indicate their spot, and everyone moves their respective sticky notes across the Kanban board as they finish tasks. Productivity rises, and so do profits.

After a few months, the executives delegate the morning meetings to a senior manager and stop coming to them. They’ve become interested in other new projects and aren’t as visible as they used to be. The increased productivity and profits stop being a novelty; they become assumed. The expensive consultants stop coming. People aren’t as conscientious about moving their sticky notes across the whiteboard. Inventory levels creep up as people think less about processes. Waste cuts back into profits.


Lean is not a Fad

The scenario above has played out in countless businesses. It happens when leadership hears about lean but don’t appreciate the deep, company-wide paradigm shifts necessary for long-lasting process improvement. If leadership focuses on a top-down approach of implementing the tools of lean (kaizen, 5S, etc), the created systems will fall apart as soon as lean stops being new and novel and leadership loses interest.

It’s the wrong approach to think that lean is an assemblage of tools to make you more money. Implementing lean tools without a company-wide inclusive culture of lean will result in short term productivity successes and long term frustration when leadership, inevitably, takes their feet off the gas pedal.

Lean is about people as much as processes. As process improvement breaks down barriers across departments, it must also break down barriers of hierarchy, social exclusion, and lack of respect. In a lean culture, leadership commits to making the shift from Supervisor to Coach, and works alongside managers to create a sense of empowerment and accountability. The entire organization must make serving the customer better their prime focus. If leadership imposes lean with the sole goal of increasing profits, it won’t succeed in the long term.


In the next few posts, I’ll drill down into what elements create a culture of lean. Next week I’ll start at the top, with looking at “lean leadership.”