Unequivocally, YES. But…there’s more to the story. We don’t throw in the towel if we don’t have all of the preexisting conditions in place.
Without the support of the senior most leader (which I’ll refer to as CEO), you can achieve results, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into believing we’re going to achieve widespread organizational transformation without significant CEO involvement and support. I commonly hear well-meaning people say that transformation can occur from bottom-up or middle-up. I’ve yet to see this be the case.
That may sound like blasphemy to many, but I had the opportunity to really think about this when I got into my office this morning and read a blog post by Matt Wrye that included Art Byrne’s response to a book review Matt ran about Art’s book, The Lean Turnaround (a fantastic book that I highlighted in an earlier post). In the review, Matt expressed concern that Art’s book had an executive-dependent tone to it.
I commented to Matt’s post and then decided to blog about it directly because I believe it gets to the core of an issue that few consultants are willing to talk about. It wasn’t an easy comment to write—and no offense was meant for the wonderful clients I’ve been and continue to be privileged to work with. But the truth’s the truth (at least as I see it!).
My comment in full:
Hi Matt – Good piece. And I’m glad you allowed Art to reply. I’m with Art. If the senior most person in the organization (I’ll use CEO as well) isn’t driving transformation—and skilled in doing so—the organization isn’t likely going to go very far on the Lean journey. And the common problem in not having executive support is one of the key reasons why, in my opinion, Lean has gotten bastardized into something that it was never intended to be. Without support from the top, “Lean” is reduced to a mechanistic process improvement method.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with improving processes using a new lens (reducing the 7 wastes). But many people think that’s all Lean is because that’s all they’ve been able to accomplish in their organization. (Notice I used 7 vs. 8 wastes—this is because I’ve never seen companies, including my own clients, get very far in reducing the 8th waste without significant executive involvement.
I’m fortunate to be a very busy consultant. And 99% of the work I do is framed as “Lean.” And in all but Fortune 500 clients, if I haven’t been invited in by the CEO, I gain access to the CEO very early on to assess his/her appetite for “real” Lean. Unfortunately, much of the time, the CEO wants the results but doesn’t want to take the journey. So I’m left with a situation where I do what I can to transform as much of the company as I can or I can walk away because executive support is lacking. I choose the “some improvement is better than no improvement” path.
The brutal truth is that, in none of the cases over all these years (19 yrs in business), can I say that even one of my clients uses Lean management to run all aspects of their business. I even have one who won a Shingo Prize after 2 yrs of work together. But now, in 2013, there’s very little evidence of Lean thinking in that organization.
What this points out is how critical the CEO role is and few CEOs there are who want Lean badly enough to do what it takes to achieve it. It’s a reality we all need to accept. There are very few Wiremolds in the world. But that doesn’t mean we throw in the towel. It just means we adjust our expectations, be satisfied with smaller wins, and keep on fighting the battle that’s absolutely worth fighting. Customers, shareholders, and employees alike are depending on it.