Don’t let a few rocks end your Lean journey

Unanticipated circumstances test organization's leadership and resilience during the Lean journey. Here is a list of common challenges faced by organizations.


Shawn Casemore is the president and founder of Casemore and Company. Courtesy: AME

I'm fortunate to live on a large bay off Lake Erie. Despite the appeal of living near the water, recent years have resulted in slowly diminishing water levels. Homeowners with waterfront property have had to invest money and time in building longer docks and extending their drainage in order to meet with the subsiding water level.

Despite these countermeasures, other not-so-desirable challenges have become apparent. Rocks, garbage and newfound plant life have emerged, no longer sheltered by high water levels. Many homeowners have responded by building longer decks and investing in waterfront improvements. Others have decided to sell their homes, finding the comfort and practicality of their property no longer appealing.

This past weekend, while watching various boats sail by, I realized that the response of these homeowners is similar to the response I see by organizations when they embark upon and progress through their Lean journeys.

New challenges, obstacles and opportunities invariably emerge as incremental improvements are made to improve workflow, align and strengthen leadership and empower employees to continuously improve. These unanticipated circumstances test both leadership and organizational resilience.

Below, I've categorized the typical responses I've witnessed from organizations, more specifically the individuals within:

Big hat, no cattle: These are the companies that believe that training in Lean, or a single facilitated Kaizen event, constitutes having completed a Lean journey. In my experience, this covers about 35% of all companies that have dabbled in Lean.

Low pain threshold: Let's face it, Lean can cause discomfort, particularly for less adaptive leaders who prefer to "manage" rather than "engage with" employees. These are the organizations that give up at the first sign of negative feedback as it relates to the changes emerging from Lean. You can recognize these companies by their framing of Lean as something that was "just not right for their culture."

The fervent few: I would estimate that only 15 to 20% of organizations that have fully engaged in Lean are committed for the long-term. Despite the energy and excitement that comes from initial results, these are the organizations that rise above emerging and unexpected challenges to continue to progress - even if it kills them.

Lean is a "journey"
Lean isn't for the faint of heart. Just as small successes arise and obstacles are overcome, new and unplanned challenges will arise. It's not a matter of if, but when. To be Lean, to commit to continuous improvement means that you stay the course, regardless of circumstances. There is no reason to turn back, only to periodically regroup and assess your position, approach and next steps. You may need to take a breath, but that doesn't mean you stop moving. From those organizations that are part of the "fervent few," I have found the following characteristics are common:

1. The owner, president or CEO is committed to sustaining the journey regardless of how it might impact the organizational structure, leadership, morale or the physical layout of the business.

2. Several "drivers" exist in key positions that are as committed (if not more so) than the owner or president. They drive forward, supporting and encouraging everyone to move toward progress, rather than away from it.

3. Discomfort comes naturally. Lean transformation can often appear and feel chaotic. With multiple processes and responsibility shifts under way, in combination with a new vision for achieving customer value, even the most engaged employee or leader can become uncomfortable. The fervent few accept, adapt and respond quickly to change.

Many of the homeowners I mentioned earlier are currently enjoying a newfound appreciation for living along the waterfront, proud of their efforts and basking in the appreciation for all that nature offers us. Are you prepared to put forth the effort and energy to sustain your Lean journey, or will a shifting tide and unexpected rocks be the end to your progress?

Shawn Casemore is the president and founder of Casemore and Company, Incorporated, a management consultancy helping organizations globally to improve organizational performance and build financial strength. This content originally appeared on Target Online. Edited by Joy Chang, Digital Project Manager, CFE Media, jchang(at)

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