The speed and effectiveness of a lean implementation may also hinge on whether CEOs have applied lean to their management style.

In his recently published book "The Lean Turnaround," Byrne says he became more of a coach and a leader rather than a manager as his companies progressed with lean. "My focus shifted completely to where we were going and how we could get there rather than where we had been," writes Byrne. "I spent all my time encouraging and pushing people to achieve things they might not have thought were possible." Byrne continued to review numbers but stopped conducting formal reviews on them. Instead, he spent more time ensuring the company was progressing toward stretch goals focused on process improvement, he writes in "The Lean Turnaround."

Lean forced Dan Ariens to become more disciplined in his approach to evaluating the executive team. "The last thing a corporation wants to see is that I'm easy on my team and hard on the people who report all the way up the chain," Ariens says. "So I set the tone and the pace, and in a lean culture if you're really serious about continuous improvement, you have to ask tough questions all the time about business performance and holding the senior leadership accountable to its performance."

Even the lean concept of one-piece flow should apply to the leadership level, Micklewright says. In other words, the CEO should be available to staff on a daily basis so problems can be addressed as they occur, similar to one-piece flow, rather than waiting for a monthly review meeting, as in batch processing, Micklewright says.

"Whether in production or in the office, they need to monitor the process continuously throughout the day," Micklewright says. "Developing a lean culture involves daily accountability meetings, visual management and oftentimes being on the production floor."