Lean On These Keys to Success

May 21, 2009
Lean experts offer these insights into core concepts and best practices that companies need to understand when starting on the lean path.

Lean is a complete business system. As such, lean requires upper- and middle-management support, and lean activities need to be aligned with the most critical goals in the organization (a concept known as policy deployment, or "hoshin kanri" in the Toyota Production System), explains Ted Stiles, director, executive search, for the New London, N.H.-based lean executive search firm Stiles Associates LLC. Says Tim Whitmore, vice president and general manager of Simpler Consulting: "The power of lean is only realized if the transformation becomes core to the company's long-term business strategy."

Lean is about people. Whitmore subscribes to Toyota's True North metric that human development is a key component of lean. "The most important competitive advantage that any organization has over its competitors is the skills and capabilities of its people," Whitmore says. Jean Cunningham, a lean consultant who got "hooked" on lean during her time as CFO of manufacturing firms such as Louisville, Ky.-based stretch-wrapping maker Lantech Inc., says that lean appeals to her because it's a system that values the ideas of employees at all levels of an organization. "We had people who spent all night working on an improvement," Cunningham recalls. "It's just amazing what people would do when [the company] said, 'Hey, we want your creative genius. We want you to be a part of the future of this company.' And people just responded."

Communication is critical. For lean efforts to have any chance at long-term success, organizations need to tell their employees early and often that lean "is not a project to reduce headcount," according to Stiles. "You'd be surprised at how many organizations don't do that," Stiles says. "And then about a year in, they can't figure out why nobody is really engaging in any of the work because they're all afraid of it and they don't trust the intentions of management."

Start with the "gemba." Jim Womack, author of "The Machine that Changed the World" and several other popular books on lean production and lean thinking, emphasizes that company leaders need to spend more time on the "gemba" (the factory floor, or according to Womack's definition, "wherever people are creating value"). And the "ritualized CEO-takes-a-walk" along a path of flat-screen TVs explaining what he or she is seeing -- that isn't going to cut it. "It's really amazing in the big Fortune 100 world that the CEO must never encounter unpredigested reality, because this would be embarrassing and awkward if the CEO doesn't understand what he or she is being shown," Womack laments. "It's just totally upside down and backwards." CEOs, Womack asserts, "ought to be asking questions rather than giving answers, and they ought to be looking at things they don't understand rather than things they do."

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