Is Lean Dependent on Executive Support?

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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.

by Mark Welch reply

I absolutely love this kind of candidness, Karen. To openly admit that not even one of your clients in 19 years uses lean in all aspects of its business is especially refreshing coming from a person who consults for a living. It flat out tells even potential clients that lean is a hard road to hoe, leaving little room for misconception if they decide to try it, although I’m sure success is measured more in shades of gray than absolutes.

Speaking for myself, I’d rather throw in the towel when I realize a CEO and the leadership aren’t committed. I don’t want to waste their time or mine. Maybe get a few wins here and there, sure, but they won’t last. I suppose one day when I’m financially independent I’ll actually be able to actually DO that ;-)

    by Karen Martin reply

    It’s a dirty little secret that most consultants won’t talk about. But, as I said, I’m not a believer in throwing in the towel–AS LONG AS THE CLIENT EXPECTATIONS MATCH THEIR INVESTMENT IN THE PROCESS. In order words, yes, I have fired clients. But only when they wanted more than they would ever be able to achieve, given the level of leadership engagement. I’m often accused of being a Lean “purist,” and I would agree with that in terms of philosophy and practices. When companies don’t want to follow Lean principles and adopt Lean practices, it’s nearly always because they don’t truly want to change vs. a consultant being overly rigid. That said, I’m not at all a Lean purist in terms of “demanding” that a client do everything it takes to transform. I’m extremely candid with them about what they can expect to achieve vs. what’s not possible given the current state conditions (e.g. leadership, etc.). But if a client wants merely to improve their processes using a Lean lens, I’m there. 100%. It’s not nearly as fulfilling as larger transformation projects are, but as I said, some improvement is better than no improvement. At least that’s how I roll. :-)

by dan markovitz reply


Terrific post. I think you’re absolutely right that “some improvement is better than no improvement.” True, you won’t get a true lean transformation, but you’ll improve the lives of the employees in those processes, and you might sow the seeds for a future Wiremold when one of those people rise through the ranks at that (or another) company.

    by Karen Martin reply

    You took the words out of my mouth, Dan. I meant to mention the employee element in my response to Mark’s comment. While I’m generally paid to produce measurable results that improve a company’s bottom line, I get even greater fulfillment from improving the daily lot of the employees. I’ve had many extended debates with others in the Lean leadership community that feel that giving an employee a taste of hope and involvement and them having them return to an environment that doesn’t support is a wasted effort. But you know what, I’ll vote for a taste over no taste any day of the week. In some cases, it may help an employee realize that a company’s not the place for them to be. If so, so be it. My work will have served a noble purpose. In 99% of the work I do, sowing seeds is the most I can expect. And when I accepted this fact about 5 years ago, my frustration level as a consultant melted away. Doesn’t mean I don’t still push for what’s right– and push hard as my clients will attest–but Whether internal or external, accepting reality is an important step in the process.

by Mark Welch reply

Very true about the seed planting notion. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Although we may never know who we’ve influenced or to what extent, I guess we just have to take it on faith, and I’m good with that. I’m sure we can all think of people who have made a strong impact on us in some way and may never have known it. The Apostle Paul died thinking he had failed in spreading Christianity. Little did he know…

    by Karen Martin reply

    The other thing I’m a firm believer in that’s related to seed planting is “timing is everything.” Like you say, you never know who you’ve influenced and in what way that will, when timing is right, take the seed and run with it. Sometimes I recommend that organization delay starting with Lean until they get a a major disruption or crisis past them (just as a large acquisition or ERP implementation).


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