Is Your Lean LAME?

Lean, or the elimination of muda ("waste"), is an ongoing process; half-hearted attempts to institute it will always fail. Here are some signs that your lean effort may be L.A.M.E.: "Lean As Misguidedly Executed."

Lean, the set of management practices based on the Toyota Production System (TPS), is meant to eliminate muda (a.k.a. waste, a.k.a. non-value-added activity) in all processes to improve efficiency, reduce cycle times and increase bottom-line profitability. Although lean initiatives can help manufacturers achieve on-time delivery and operational excellence, as well as shorter order cycles, reduce costs and increase revenue, it is neither a solution nor a quick fix — it is an ongoing process of continuous improvement, a tenet that cannot be emphasized enough.

Although an increasing number of manufacturers are implementing lean initiatives to create competitive advantage, more than 90 percent of lean transformations fail, according to Bill Waddell, lean manufacturing consultant and the author of Rebirth of American Industry, at the Evolving Excellence blog.

Half-hearted attempts to institute "a quick fix" lean system almost always fail. Even serious attempts can fail.

This "failure" is typically due to companies taking a shortsighted view of lean, engaging in sporadic lean projects with no long-term lean strategy to follow. Others have difficulty gaining executive sponsorship or commitment, leading to compromised lean results. Managing cultural change and engaging employee participation are big challenges.

Often the problem is not with the concept of lean; rather, it is with the implementation.

Lean Versus LAME

Mark Graban at the Lean Blog recently coined the phrase L.A.M.E. as "Lean As Misguidedly Executed," and Kevin Meyer at the Evolving Excellence blog built upon the idea.

The following are some signs that your lean effort may be LAME:

1) Not Communicating Why You're Going Lean

One of the two primary pillars of lean practices is "respect for people," as noted in Lean Blog's definition. Yet the first assumption people will make is that lean means "Less Employees Are Needed," according to Jon Miller at Gemba Panta Rei: "No matter how many times you explain the big picture, customer-focused, long-term thinking reason for going Lean, people will tune back into radio station WIFM — What's in it for Me?"

Because it isn't easy getting companies to buy into the idea of respecting people, particularly when cost cutting and quarterly earnings are often the most powerful drivers in the business, lean requires effective — even passionate — leadership.

Leadership's commitment will be tested early and often, and it will be watched closely, "so look for opportunities to make believers out of those on the fence," writes Healthcare Performance Partners, LLC President and CEO Charles Hagood in The 12-1/2 Truths of a Lean Transformation.

As Evolving Excellence puts it: "How many times have we had to prove that 90 percent of a process is waste, while people in the organization are convinced that it is already as efficient as it can be? The leader... the teacher... must create that vision of the future, which to most will seem unattainable."

"An effective change vision must include not just new strategies and structures but also new, aligned behaviors on the part of senior executives. Leading by example means just that," Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter wrote in Leader to Leader Journal back in 1998.

Yet too many managers simply do not understand that lean manufacturing is all about management, Evolving Excellence says:

They think manufacturing excellence can be bought through consultants or acquisitions; or simply dictated by top management fiat. Factories are as lean or as fat, as good or as bad, and as profitable or not as management drives them to be. The idea that a factory can be changed from fat to lean while management remains the same is just plain silly.

"Ultimately, nothing will kill buy-in and commitment from the frontline troops faster than leadership and management not following through on its commitments to the transformation," says Hagood.

Keep communicating the reason lean is essential until employees understand and believe it, Miller urges.

2) An "Adequate" Level of Lean Education

"Although being lean begins with culture and leadership," according to Meyer at Evolving Excellence, "it cannot end with that."

Miller writes at Gemba Panta Rei:

Whether it be a number of hours, certification through attending a number of seminars or courses, reading books or being on a number of Kaizen events, as soon as you set the "enough" level of Lean education and ask them to get back to work, you have a misguided Lean execution. Toyota says "monozukuri wa hitozukuri," or "making things is making people." Real Lean is the Thinking People System, and this requires a long-term commitment to superior manufacturing (or service) through people development.

Many organizations do few fly-by kaizen, value stream, rapid improvement or 5-S events in selected areas and consider the job done. "All that will do is get the organization initially excited only to be let down from lack of sustainability," Hagood points out. "Lean has to become more than a program or a few events. It must become a way of life that permeates all levels."

As Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe recently said of the Toyota Way: "I don't think I have a complete understanding even today, and I have worked for the company for 43 years."

An excerpt from Henry Ford's My Life and Work:

None of our men are "experts." The moment one gets into the "expert" state of mind, a great number of things become impossible.

Remember the kaizen notion of continuous improvement. Which leads us to...

3) Having a Lean Completion Date

The process of improving never ends.

"Once you truly understand lean, you'll want to put a zero after whatever number you have as the completion date [of your lean implementation plan], or scratch the number off all together," according to Miller.

And Hagood notes:

A lean transformation has no end date. The process is ongoing and is never a closed-out action item. There is no such thing as the perfect company or process, therefore the closest to perfect you can become is to recognize that it is a continuous process of improvement.

"While it is important to celebrate results along the way, kidding yourself or others about the difficulty and duration of organizational transformation can be catastrophic," Kotter wrote in Leader to Leader. "Celebrating incremental improvements is a great way to mark progress and sustain commitment — but don't forget how much work is still to come," Kotter emphasized.

The recent publicity about Toyota becoming No. 1 (albeit briefly) is expected to create another burst of energy to lean initiatives, even though a survey by management consulting firm Bain shows that just 19 percent of companies that have tried it are happy with the results, Mark Gottfredson, Bain's head of performance improvement, recently said in a notable article from the American Society for Quality.

So, according to true lean believers (Remember continuous improvement!), if this news means that lean is going to become the new "flavor of the month" in business operations, then that 19 percent rate will either remain constant or even drop.


Pogo Was Talkin' about Me

Evolving, Jan. 3, 2006

Lean or LAME?

Lean Blog, March 21, 2007

A Telling Lean Typo?

Evolving Excellence, March 22, 2007

What Is Lean? A Lean Definition

Lean Blog, May 13, 2005

Here Are 4.5 Signs that Your Lean May Be L.A.M.E.

by Jon Miller

Gemba Panta Rei, May 13, 2007

The Teaching Leader

by Kevin Meyer

Evolving Excellence, March 25, 2007

Winning at Change

by John P. Kotter

Leader to Leader, Fall 1998

Stop the Flow of Blood

by Bill Waddell

Evolving Excellence, Nov. 2, 2005

Looking Lean vs. Being Lean - It Begins With Leadership and Culture

by Kevin Meyer

Evolving Excellence, Jan. 9, 2006

My Life and Work

by Henry Ford and Samuel Crowther

Kessinger Publishing, January 2003

Toyota's vault to No. 1 puts focus (good and bad) on lean

by The American Society for Quality

Reliable Plant Magazine, May 2007

GM Narrows Sales Gap With Toyota on Non-U.S. Demand (Update4)

by Kae Inoue and Greg Bensinger

Bloomberg News, July 20, 2007


Going Lean Alone

by Robert L. Clippard (Clippard Instrument Lab Inc.)

Machine Design, July 12, 2007

Making The Shift To A Lean Enterprise

by Dave Wolgast and Guy Morgan

IndustryWeek, April 04, 2007

Transforming Your Business To Lean: Lessons Learned

by Dave Gleditsch

IndustryWeek, Jan. 18, 2007

More Lean Lessons

by Dave Gleditsch

IndustryWeek, Jan. 31, 2007

10 Common Misconceptions About Lean Manufacturing

by Jon Miller

Gemba Panta Rei, June 24, 2007

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