What is Lean?

“What is Lean?” may seem a strange question to be asking 15 years after the approach gained recognition in manufacturing and began its progressive spread to other industries. But Lean has suffered from an identity crisis that isn’t over. And before it will deliver the promise companies put stock in, we need to clear about what Lean is—and what it is not.

Our introduction to Lean was framed as five key principles: define value, understand the value steam, eliminate waste, createflow, and seek perfection (Jim Womack, Lean Thinking, 1st edition, 1996). This was a solid and valuable perspective to start from.

In 2003, Jeffrey Liker deepened our understanding in what has become the “bible” of Lean, The Toyota Way. Here we learned that Lean wasn’t merely about principles and tools but that core practices played an essential role in transforming organizations. But, by then, the tools train had left the station, our paradigms had been formed, and many missed the key word in Liker’s subtitle, “14 Management Principles from the World’s Leading Manufacturer.”

Most organizations using Lean or a variation of Lean operate from the “improvement methodology” space. I, too, have been guilty of this in the past. But recognizing that Lean is an all-encompassing business management approach versus an improvement approach—and calling it that—is the key to helping everyone understand that you won’t become Lean by merely eliminating waste. You won’t become Lean by teaching a few people how to use PDSA to solve problems and make pretty A3 reports. And you won’t even become Lean by finallycorralling your leadership team and brow-beating them into supporting Lean activities. All of this work is for naught if leaders view Lean as an improvement methodology that should be handled by “improvement experts” – those black belts and Lean champions that are technically proficient but are largely unskilled in running a business.

Done well, Lean shifts how a company selects the goods and services it will offer, how it prices them, how it recruits employees to deliver value and support the delivery of value, and how it operates, etc. Lean is FAR more that process redesign, which is the simplistic place it often gets diminished to.

Words matter. The labels we attribute to complex and holisticconcepts sets the trajectory for how the thing we’re referring tois viewed by the world-at-large. And how the way we view things creates our own version of reality. What we need todecide—right here and right now—is that we’re no longer going to devalue Lean by referring to it as an improvement methodology.

Lean always has been and always will be a business management approach. Now let’s see if THAT gets your leaders’ attention.

by Dana Koenig reply

Karen, my company views Lean as an improvement approach that a trained team does and is responsible for results, rather than every manager feeling ownership and using it as a management tool. While we get some results in the form of processes improvement, it generally doesn’t stick because the managers feel no ownership and line workers participate reluctantly for fear of improving themselves out of a job. What’s your advice on helping management make the jump in thinking?

by Karen Martin reply

Dana – Thank you for your question. I could write pages in response but I’ll stick to a few key points. First I’d ask why the company feels that Lean is done by a trained team only? Is that what an executive said he/she wanted when you started down the path? Or is it possible that the improvement team themselves have created this condition? Many improvement professionals get stuck in the trap of “I’m the expert” rather than “I’m the facilitator.” They get stuck in the role of “doer” vs. “teacher,” which is the only way Lean will ultimately work.

Second question – Why do the employees feel threatened? Apply PDSA/PDCA to your questions. Determine root cause. Is it because the company has a history of doing so? If that’s the case, the only way to move forward is to have the senior most person promise that no jobs will be lost due to Lean and then stick by it. Do you have executive sponsors for all improvement activities? This is a key success factor.

Third question – Where are managers in the scheme of things? The only way people “own” something is to “give” it to them. They should be intimately involved in scoping improvement activities, selecting team members, etc. And ultimately they should be deeply developed as problem solving coaches. But this takes a while and requires a systematic approach.

You can turn this ship today, regardless of what the execs say by changing your approach. Improvement teams themselves (consisting of people who do the work on a daily basis) should be designing and implementing both the improvements and the management system to monitor performance. The “trained team” should not be the ones doing it. Trained professionals are their to serve as coaches and teachers. So, during improvement you’re teaching them how to be better problem solvers, how to see waste, what their options are in terms of countermeasures, etc. Very few people want others to dictate how their work should be done, so I think you’ll find it quite easy to engage the people who do the work. I talk about connection, control and creativity in my book — the 3 C’s to engagement and Lean, done right, accomplishes all three.

Last point – to be an effective coach/teacher, you have to have a high degree of proficiency in the skill you’re teaching. So make sure your entire “trained team” are highly competent themselves in Lean practices and the psychology of change.

I hope that helps. Feel free to comment further.


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