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.