Straight Talk: Avoid the Con of Quick and Easy Lean

Jan. 27, 2012
Lean is a strategic initiative that requires at least three to five years for any organization of size. It is a lifestyle change, not a diet.

I recently spoke to the head of lean implementation at a large European-based manufacturing and engineering organization. He is discouraged. Contrary to his advice, the senior executives just agreed to purchase the services of a consulting firm to implement lean.

What they bought were a series of quick and simple kaizen events in which the participants would do A3 problem-solving, and the consultants guaranteed quick financial results. The executives were assured that it would require no burden on their part, just verbal and financial support (for the consultants) and the consultants would handle everything else.

Simple. No problem.

These executives were led to believe that they would then be "doing lean," Toyota Production System and all that good stuff. There is one thing I can absolutely guarantee you, in addition to the sun rising tomorrow. They will NOT be doing lean or TPS!!

Quick and easy solution = quick and easy sell. Unfortunately, more and more executives are being duped into what is essentially a scam.

Let's be honest about this problem. Many senior executives suffer ADD (attention deficit disorder) and lack the tenacity, vision or as Dr. Deming would say, the constancy of purpose," to implement significant change in the culture and processes of their organizations. Feeding them quick and easy solutions is like selling dope to a drug addict.

Here are some clues to avoiding the scam:

  • If you want to achieve short-term financial gains by just cutting head count, don't pretend it's anything associated with lean. And don't imagine you need a consulting firm to help you. Just do it! Then work on the important stuff.
  • If someone comes into your office and promises you short-term financial results and claims it's lean management," throw him out of your office and tell him never to come back! Check to see that your watch is still on your wrist, first.
  • If someone claims that lean is doing 5S, an A3 or A4 problem-solving sheet or PDCA, they do not know lean and are appealing to your ADD. Tell them to stop insulting you, you have already taken your Ritalin for the day!
  • If someone tells you that you can implement lean down there," while you and other senior managers remain unscathed, avoiding effort or pain, tell them you have seen enough late-night cable-TV commercials telling you how to lose 50 pounds without breaking a sweat! It ain't gonna happen!

On the other hand, here is some straight talk about implementing lean:

  • Lean is a strategic initiative that will require at least three to five years for any organization of size. It is a lifestyle change, not a diet.
  • It requires active leadership. Mr. Toyoda and Mr. Honda were both directly involved in shaping the culture, driving what was important in the organization and recognizing success. They did the gemba walk, were on the spot, where the value-adding work gets done, learning from those who are expert in the work.

Ray Kroc did it too. Ray Kroc spent half of his time visiting McDonald's locations, and when he did, if the bathroom was dirty, he grabbed the bucket and mop and cleaned it. That was when he was chairman, with tens of thousands of stores. You may think he was crazy, but he did it. He built one of the most significant corporations in the world around a few core values (quick, clean and courteous), and he demonstrated their importance through his own behavior.

You need to do it!

  • Knowledge of lean is more important at the top than at the bottom. The cost of waste is far higher in the poor decisions made by managers and executives than it is on the front lines. Time and again I have seen senior executives making multi-million-dollar decisions without following any disciplined decision process -- little fact finding, little brainstorming of root causes of problems, little brainstorming of potential solutions, etc. Adopting lean management means continuous improvement in management processes and behavior, as well as the processes and behavior on the front lines.
  • Consultants cannot do it for you. Use experienced consultants to develop internal capacity and competence among internal change agents and then work themselves out of a job at your company. You need to own the capability to continuously improve. You do not need to continuously employ consulting firms. Consultants should also be willing to deliver straight talk to senior managers. It is hard for internals to look you in the eye and tell you that you need to change! But, that is often the truth, and an external consultant must be a truth teller.
  • Lean is a culture, not an acronym or a workshop. Certainly 5S, A3s, etc., may be part of lean implementation, but they can also be an excuse for not doing the really important things like knocking down significant walls in the flow of work through the organization. Those walls are management walls. Lean requires the development a healthy value system in the organization, and that cannot happen in the short term. It can start tomorrow, but it must be pursued continuously by the leaders of the organization.
  • Lean management is both a social and a technical system, and both need to change together. Yes, lean is just-in-time inventory management, continuous-flow or interruption-free processes, the adoption of IT solutions that enable the process flow, etc. That is the technical system. But it only works if the social system -- the trust in employees, the empowerment to make decisions and improve processes at the first level, teamwork, the respect for those who are on the spot, and the recognition and reinforcement of positive behavior -- are all aligned to the new work processes. One without the other is likely to lead to short lived success.

And, one more thing: Straight talk, absolutely honest, frank and open conversation about both problems and successes, is a necessity of developing a lean culture. In fact, it is an absolute necessity of any healthy organization, family, community or country. It requires straight talk both to and from leaders.

Lawrence M. Miller has been doing organizational change consulting for 35 years, beginning with his work creating a free economy in prisons. He has worked with Honda, Shell Oil, and dozens of other corporations. He is the author of nine books, most recently Lean Culture The Leader's Guide. His website and blog is He can be reached at [email protected].

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