Does Lean Really Work?

Yes. It really does. Deployed properly, that is.

One of the biggest problems we currently face in the Lean movement is that there are an increasing number of people “spreading the word” about Lean in its various shapes and forms who have neither experienced true Lean nor studied it deeply enough to understand the full range of conditions and actions that makes Lean actually work.

They may have attended a belt program that’s largely Six Sigma-based, worked for a company that only implemented a tool or two and not the full range of philosophies and practices that fuel top and bottom line results, or decided to pick and choose those elements that they’re comfortable with versus those that require heavy lifting, such as shifting leadership mindsets and behaviors, a fundamental requirement for Lean success. So the first step toward seeing Lean really work is relying on a experienced teacher/coach who truly knows Lean.

The second step is to stop attempting to prove Lean’s worth. Recently I’ve been hearing the same question over and over: “How can I prove that Lean works?” I usually answer this question with a question: “Can you prove the existence of God? Can you prove that excessive cell phone use leads to brain cancer? Or that eating too many eggs leads to high cholesterol?”

The answer is no. Cause and effect is a slippery slope, especially in environments with as many variables as the human body and business. Oh, many try their best to “prove” any number of things only to have their conclusions reversed years later. Think DDT,  cigarette smoke, and the plethora of “safe” medications that were later found to cause dangerous side effects. (Really, did anyone think that inhaling nicotine-laced smoke was a wonderful tonic for building healthier lungs??)

Let’s face the facts: Lean is a business management approach whose results are tough to prove definitively. But I defy any intelligent leader to, once they learn what true Lean is, say it makes no sense. In fact, when you take each element one-by-one, the most common conclusions I hear are: Yes, that’s the right thing to do.

So if you’re trying to “sell” someone on the virtues of Lean, perhaps the best approach is to explain that you will not be able to produce unequivocal evidence that Lean produced any particular result. But, rather, that rethinking how business should be designed and managed is what produced results. Imagine what would happen to a companies’ bottom lines and the quality of peoples’ work lives if every company adopted the full spectrum of Lean philosophies, practices and tools! Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and, in defiance of a lack of evidence, do something because it’s the right thing to do.

Case in point: a dear friend and frequent client of mine is a CEO who has used Lean to transform three separate operations. In  a powerful email to me, she described what she refers to as The Magic of Lean, which I want to share with you:

“In my experience leading organizations through the Lean journey, there’s a magic moment—a tipping point—where a critical mass of believers engage their hearts and souls into making their work simpler and easier. All of the deployment strategies, training, Kaizen Events, and problem-solving teams, finally kick into a natural unconscious behavior. The power of incremental improvements creates inertia that delivers profit to the bottom line. No one is really sure what exactly is driving the financial improvements. It’s not an event; it’s a change of culture, a new healthier, happier company. That’s what I call the magic of Lean.”

So my advice to all of the doubting Thomases out there? Stop trying to calculate return on investment for every move you make. Stop searching for definitive proof that Lean works because here’s the thing: the principles, practices and tools behind the Lean approach create the mindsets and behaviors that produce excellence in any endeavor. Stop spending valuable time being cynical and, instead, use that time to experiment with a new way of thinking and behaving. Show me one element of Lean that makes no sense. Show me one thing that will harm rather than heal an operation and the people who work there. Show me one thing that will irritate a company’s customers, regulators, shareholders, or employees—versus the reverse.

Every organization should deploy Lean—true Lean—because there’s absolutely no reason not to. Sometimes you have to do the right thing even if cause and effect is tough to prove.

by Ahmad reply

Since I started my very humble journey with Lean,I realized that the proof is not only what the data shows (that’s needed of course), but rather the impact on the staff and the customers. Just yesterday, I was walking the genba with a VS champion who was excited to show me a new change to one of the processes, and the moment we arrived to the work station, one of the workers jumped in excitement even before we greeted him and said that this system is much better than the old one, he even mentioned that work “flows” easily and he could finish in that morning double what he usually does. That was the moment of truth for us. He made our day!

    by Karen Martin reply

    This is a great story, Ahmad, and does indeed illustrate how powerful Lean is. The wonderful thing is that process time reductions (freed capacity) are quantifiable and can be translated to dollars in all but downturned markets. Bravo! Keep it up!

by Ganesh reply

I would like to know your view on implementing Lean principles in public material testing labs where
1) Volume of incoming samples is unpredictable
2) Each department has limited human resource who can conduct multiple tests
3) Difficulty in estimating output capacity of each department / hardware / personnel
4) Duration of each tests varies depending on number of samples and type of tests

Though the entire process is driven by FIFO, there are events where customers want reports earlier than due date, they pay extra for the speedy service. Due to many variables in day to day operations, it is difficult to maintain output.

In such situations, can lean be implemented in Labs (or in any service industry)?

    by Karen Martin reply

    Lean principles, management practices, and most of the tools apply to any industry and any functional area within an organization. All of my books address Lean in office/service ( and labs, in particular, have seen great success when applying Lean. Uneven demand, limited resources, and work duration variation exist in far more settings than just laboratories. So yes, Lean thinking and Lean doing can and should be applied in this situation. Also remember that, while Lean presents new ways of thinking that help with process analysis and improvement, that’s only one of many elements in Lean. For an organization to “become Lean.” it also needs to develop its leaders into Lean leaders; create a culture where improvement is happening every day, every where, by every one; and build deep problem-solving capabilities.

    In your case, I recommend going beyond simple FIFO and create pull systems to surface the problems. Work segmentation based on complexity, customer group, performance expectations, etc is another way to manage high variation. If you experiment with work segmentation, make sure you cross-train everyone you can and move them frequently so you don’t create a army of specialists and lose flexibility as an organization. And, finally, consider developing organizational capabilities and getting faster results by engaging with a seasoned Lean coach. You’ve painted a complex picture and you need someone who’s dealt with that degree of complexity over and over and over. We can help and there are many other fine resources out there that you can turn to. You need to work on leveling demand (also referred to as load leveling), waste elimination and process time reduction to free capacity to more easily handle the incoming workload, etc. #3 shouldn’t be difficult to do – you just need to know the time and work volume for each work category.

    I hope this helps! Best wishes for improvement success! — Karen

by Vincent (Vinnie) Polito reply

Karen the past 25 years as a Lean consultant I can appreciate the point and lessons you are sharing. I’ve coached hundreds of organizations and learned the lessons the hard way. When performance is running bad everyone points a finger or has a solution (as long as it won’t affect them) then when we applied Lean to make the performance better they step up and say “Lean didn’t matter it was getting better anyway”. So when we began a Lean engagement we always started with two business steps. These are not something you would find in a TPS manual but they helped answer the question “is Lean worth it”. The first step was working with the senior leaders and defining the Business Case. Very deliberately and clearly stating the performance improvement expectations and why they are needed from the business standpoint. The second step was establishing the baseline measures and metrics that would be targets for improvement and the targets themselves. This helped us in multiple ways. First is set performance expectations early and gave the senior leaders a sense of something to look forward to. Second it helped us refine our Lean coaching direction and gave our consultants the opportunity to zero in on the things that matter to the leaders. And then of course as we began to apply Lean principles, tools and techniques and performance improved we could point to the change and use it to stimulate support. The opposite is also true when the performance targets didn’t improve we pointed out the need to do better. Karen thanks for writing your article it was very good.

    by Karen Martin reply

    Great points, Vinnie! Making the business case is indeed #1.


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