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Why Leadership Commitment Won't Guarantee Lean Success

Successful lean implementations start with a clear view of company strategy and the role of lean in supporting that strategy. Absent that, even committed leaders will lose their way.

If you do a Web search on the phrase “Why continuous improvement programs fail,” you’ll get about 8 million “hits,” give or take a few hundred thousand. I haven’t read all 8 million articles, but I’ve read a lot of them on the topic and most point to leadership failure as the root cause of program failure. The usual line is “lack of leadership commitment causes most continuous improvement failures.”

It’s hard to disagree with this, of course. We’ve all seen our share of improvement initiatives that died on the vine when leadership seemed to only be interested in supporting the effort with lip service and not much else. But I’ve also seen improvement initiatives fail, or, at least, run into a lot of difficulty, even when top leadership gave every appearance of being committed to the success of the program. We throw a lot of reasonably good leaders under the bus when we paint them all with the same brush of “lack of commitment.”

So, what’s going on, then, in those cases where the root cause of failure isn’t lack of commitment?

I’ve always thought that one of the things that makes lean difficult to implement is the fact that it’s a strategy wrapped up in a lot of tactics. In other words, it looks easier to implement than it turns out to be because lean strategy is camouflaged by an array of methods and techniques that seem as if they ought to be pretty straightforward. Company leaders, not understanding the strategy at the foundation of lean, strive to implement a few of the techniques, find they are hard to install and even more difficult to sustain, then drop them. Later, they claim that they “tried lean but it just didn’t work for us.”

Lean is the building of capabilities that enable the company to get more customers."

When lean works well, there is a clear, direct line between the tactics (tools and methods) and the broader strategy. But when a strong linkage between “lean as methods” and “lean as strategy” is never formed in a manager’s mind, he or she never develops the necessary commitment to lean as a strategy. That’s not to say that managers who fail at lean have no strategic vision at all. It is to say that such strategic vision as they do have isn’t in synchrony with what lean is intended to do.

The disconnect between “lean as tactics” and “lean as strategy” is made even more of a problem by “practitioners” and consultants who espouse purposes for lean that it just isn’t designed to meet. Recently, I read an article on LinkedIn that purported to discuss the “dark side” of lean. The author presents an account of a lean implementation. Here’s a small excerpt:

[The company owner] decided to double his production, building a bigger factory and hiring an additional 50 workers. He did not understand the market or why people bought Swiss Cheese, his sales only increased by 10%. He began to lose a lot of money. In desperation, he hired a manufacturing consultant to implement lean. The consultant suggested he automate his manufacturing process to cut costs.”

Simply and directly put, lean is not a strategy to cut costs, so lean tactics are not designed to directly reduce costs. Lean isn’t about automating or getting rid of personnel. But listen to writers and consultants who tout lean tools as effective means to cut costs, then they implement those tools with the hope that costs will quickly fall. When that doesn’t happen, they lose interest. Lean implementations that have cost cutting as their central purpose will almost certainly fail.

If Not Cost Cuts, Then What?

So, if “cutting costs” isn’t the strategy that lean is meant to achieve, what is? Lean is the building of capabilities that enable the company to get more customers.

Let’s look at a simple example that I hope will illustrate my point. A plant installs shadow boards so that operators will put their tools on them when they are finished using them. We all know that a shadow board keeps tools visible and organized. A shadow board makes it easy to find a tool, to know where to put a tool, to tell if a tool is in use or missing altogether.

The use of a shadow board is directly connected to the broader strategy of increasing market share and improving margins. Here’s the way it works: A shadow board allows operators to retrieve tools more readily. This, in turn, impacts reductions in set-up and changeover times. As set-up/changeover times are reduced, shorter runs are possible. Shorter runs mean reduced inventory, better adherence to production schedules, better on time shipping, improved agility and flexibility in responding to changing demands of customers. Reduced set-up times also provide additional machine capacity, which is how all the new orders that arrive because the company has so markedly improved its service will be produced.

Shadow boards themselves, then, are tactical, it’s true. But they directly support and enable a broader strategy. The same is true for all the other elements of lean, from kanban, to 5S, to value stream mapping, to lean teams, to leader standard work…well, you get the idea.

Successful lean implementations, then, start with a clear view of company strategy and the role of lean in supporting that strategy. If company leaders don’t have that clear view, no matter how committed they are initially to implementing tools and methods, they will lose that commitment and the energy that goes with it.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. Bohan has a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master of science in organizational development from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has published articles in National Productivity Review, Quality Progress and ASTD's Training and Development Journal. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance. Bohan can be reached at [email protected].

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