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Can There Ever Be Too Much of a Good Thing?

April 28, 2015
Don't kid yourself into thinking that you've gotten too good at Lean thinking. Lean is a journey, not a destination.

I recently read an article about “Xerox cutting back on Lean Six Sigma program, jobs” and it got me thinking that maybe it’s possible to be too good at Lean thinking (or at least think you are too good!). Why else would Xerox decimate their Lean staff and to some degree their infrastructure?

The reason given by Xerox makes sense, at least on the surface: “Xerox, having met its goal of embedding the principles and practices of (Lean Six Sigma) within the business ... we no longer have a need for a centralized LSS function and (will) disband the corporate LSS team….” With Xerox now having roughly 500 black belts and 2,500 green belts, “It didn’t make sense to have a separate Lean Six Sigma operation….”

That number of black/green belts sounds like there are a lot of “experts” in Lean Six Sigma at Xerox, but keep in mind that: 1) Xerox has 140,000 employees so that takes a lot of ongoing support, and 2) Lean is a major cultural shift for most companies and is a journey, not a destination where you just move on to something else.

On top of that, most companies are only now beginning to expand Lean (and Lean Six Sigma) activities to their other areas, such as supply chain and logistics, administration, new product development, engineering, etc., so there is always potential to eliminate more waste in the organization.

So it’s a little hard to believe that this isn’t just another layoff/savings initiative in disguise to save resources (i.e., not just the dedicated Lean staff of 12, but all of the employee time throughout the company spent in kaizen events).

The reality that I’ve found in companies that successfully implement Lean is that: 1) there has to be a Lean team-based continuous improvement culture (top down and bottom up), and 2) there also has to be adequate support for training, resources and kaizen events.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that “corporate seagulls” need to constantly come to local facilities and do (or guide) the work. Rather, they monitor and make sure that the proper training and support is there and help to ensure that improvement milestones are established, managed and met.

Nor should there should there be a need to have a large staff of Lean “experts” at each facility to guide the work, but there should be at least a Lean coordinator with some infrastructure to keep the momentum going (and maybe a Lean “czar” at corporate).

I sure hope that this isn’t a case of Xerox declaring victory too soon.

In any case, I think it’s “food for thought” for companies that are considering, or have already started on, the Lean journey in their enterprise (supply chain and elsewhere).

Parts of this column are adapted from Lean Supply Chain & Logistics Management (McGraw-Hill; 2012), Lean Retail and Wholesale (McGraw-Hill; 2014) and Supply Chain and Logistics Management Made Easy (Pearson, 2015) by Paul A. Myerson, with permission from McGraw-Hill and Pearson, respectively.

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