Sustaining the Lean Organization

What is it that enables a lean organization to deliver ever increasing value to customers over time? During the past 21 years as principal consultant with Lean Ireland I have gleaned some key indicators for long-term success. Firstly we need to define what exactly is meant by Lean. My own preferred  definition is as follows.

“An organization operating to lean principles develops the creative powers of its employees with three purposes in mind

  • to delight the customer
  • to eliminate waste and lower costs, and
  • to establish a safe and secure working environment for all employees.”

Safety not only involves the physical safety of the environment but also the absence of discrimination, unreasonable work demands or bullying of any kind. A corollary of working in this lean way is that employees are engaged and motivated, and both morale and retention are high.

Lean leadership standard work

The following are my own top three keys for success in sustaining and growing Lean.

  1. What the boss wants the boss gets

Firstly the boss has to lead the lean way of doing business. If the boss wants it, it will happen. This is true of any organization-wide initiative anywhere in the world. By ‘the boss’ I mean the head of the particular organization entity e.g. site lead, VP of sales or chairman of the board. Each has influence on his own span of control in the organization. The more senior the boss, the greater the success that will be accrued over time.

If the boss does not lead the initiative, then at best the organization will have a guerrilla-style implementation in certain areas only, led by the local leader who understands the benefits of lean. The results will be islands of excellence in a sea of waste.

Success requires that the boss understands lean. Rather than regarding it as a set of incidental tools and enablers, it is a way of developing organization competitiveness within the marketplace. It involves spreading lean in the end-to-end supply chain. The opportunities in the enterprise vastly exceed the opportunities in-house.

The boss has to live by lean principles and must lead by example. If it’s a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ on the boss’s part then the lean implementation will only be at best partially successful as direct reports will be sceptical of his commitment. A good example of lean leadership is standard work, a founding principle of lean. The boss leads the standard work effort e.g. leading the tier board reviews at senior level within the organization and practicing 5S in his own environment. One of the best mechanisms for auditing 5S that I have observed is cross-department auditing, that treat all levels of the organization hierarchy equally. Once audit parameters are agreed and commitments made across the organization, this method is great for generating engagement and innovative flow results.  

2. Lean is a long-term evolving journey

Secondly the view must be taken the lean implementation is a never-ending adventure. It is not a set of specific short term-interventions, rather an evolving adaptation to customer needs and preferences, technology changes, regulations and other environmental changes.  It involves not just employees, but also people at the organization interfaces such as suppliers, suppliers’ suppliers, contractors,  customers and customers’ customers.  

The lean journey requires both strategic and tactical planning. The customer is the one who decides what direction the journey takes.  Planning requires a clear link to customer values and changing needs, and resources in terms of clearly defined roles and responsibilities for employees, performance metrics, ambitious targets for key business processes and regular review and revitalization.

3. You won’t win ‘em all

People are the driving force of all lean initiatives. I am constantly impressed and delighted with the calibre of process improvement work, and innovation displayed by continuous improvement practitioners in client organisations. However all lean leaders need to be realistic in terms of the level of understanding and commitment from employees in the organization. If 30% understand, are committed to and lead using lean values, then you are winning. The remaining 70% will row in behind.

Occasionally a so-called anchor-dragger will not be willing to commit to the standardized way of doing business. That person is unlikely to be a good fit for the organization and may be encouraged and supported to find an alternative career.

However the most likely behaviour observed over time is that of personnel in leadership roles, who are compliant and willing participants in a structured lean environment, completely abandon all lean principles when they change roles in the corporation or join another organisation. It’s as if they never heard of lean! People who truly assimilate lean principles and are keen to continue the learning journey are in the minority. That’s just human nature and we need to accept and manage it.

It is also regrettably true that successful lean initiatives can be totally undone by new personnel hired into a lean organization, who do not understand lean at all. I have seen excellent local signal-based pull systems, where customer service was in the high 90 percentage points, being dismantled by supervisors and managers who simply had no previous exposure to such systems. This of course indicates a weakness in the management standard work structure.

The above 3 keys points may seem very obvious and even overly simplistic. They are designed to both encourage and moderate the expectations of lean leaders at all levels of the organization. Every lean enthusiast needs a dose of reality starting out, so as not to be discouraged when normal human behaviour causes the programme to stall or roll backwards for a while. A solid relationship with the customer, consistency of message, persistence in the effort and people-centered leadership values will ensure progress.  

Bernie Rushe, Principal Consultant, Lean Ireland,, +353 8702837810

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