Lean’s two key ingredients

Lean programs usually begin with good intentions. But sustaining the effort is the biggest challenge.


The rising cost of doing business is challenging us all to find ways to work more efficiently.Lean programs usually begin with good intentions. But sustaining the effort is the biggest challenge. Courtesy: SiemensWhether your organization is a publicly traded or privately owned company, a government agency or a not-for-profit charity, the rising cost of doing business is challenging us all to find ways to work more efficiently.

To examine, plan and correct internal systems and processes that may be wasting time and resources, dozens of organizations are, in any given week, undertaking Lean process improvement initiatives. Lean programs usually begin with good intentions. The biggest challenge? Sustaining the effort. But let’s take a few steps back to understand why ongoing improvements — not jackrabbit finishes — are the way to go.

In our experience, while many organizations do some level of Lean training and/or participate in Lean events, only a handful of these initiatives have a lasting impact on their operations’ performance.

Lean programs stall because:

  • Senior management does not actively and continually demonstrate their commitment and participation
  • The Lean program’s not truly aligned with business priorities
  • Before-and-after outcomes of Lean events are not measured
  • There’s no follow up action on opportunities discovered through Lean events
  • The company didn’t actively engage their employees in finding and solving problems
  • Resources are spread across too many activities and projects, resulting in little progress toward any of the goals.

When the above dynamics are in play, people end up working hard towards murky results – a drag on both productivity and morale.

Ingredient One

To begin on the right foot, leadership and employees must cultivate The first ingredient of Lean: A collective sense of purpose that will drive all their Lean activities.

James P. Womack, founder and chairman of the Lean Enterprise Institute, talks about how many companies’ Lean journey begins with an attitude of “Let’s do some Kaizen, let’s do a lot of Kaizen. Let’s find muda (waste) and shoot it. Let’s go FAST.”

Many companies taking this approach have achieved great short-term outcomes, Womack says. However, the “frenzy of Kaizen” that got them there often became difficult to sustain because “the fundamental management system and mentality was not compatible with continuous improvement.”

In effect, Womack says, when you do improvement to people instead of by people, you are getting nowhere.

So what’s the right way?

Senior management and process leaders must first define how the company’s Lean journey will contribute to the organization’s overall business objectives.

For example, if the objective is to slash customer order-to-delivery times by 50% (resulting in happy repeat customers), what elements (e.g. order confirmation and processing, supply chain, production floor layout, quality control, warehousing and shipping) should be evaluated? Based on analysis, which systems and processes show the greatest opportunity for improvement using Lean methods?

Before selecting one or two Kaizen events that begin your organization’s Lean journey, ask these questions:

  • What are the 4-5 overarching goals for your organization?
  • What are the major value streams that have an impact on those goals (remember that the focus of Lean is on the customer and the value stream)?
  • What is the target condition you would like to achieve?
  • What is the actual condition now? Use value stream mapping (VSM) to determine this.
  • What obstacles are currently preventing you from reaching your target condition? These are the obstacles that your first Kaizen event can address.

Define the above and you will have Lean ingredient one: A strategy, a roadmap and a sense of purpose. If you want to begin your Kaizen event but haven’t asked these questions, back up, slow down and focus on them now.

Ingredient two

We all love companies that embrace a culture of excellence. The companies whose brands are synonymous with innovation and customer service: Google. Amazon. Zappos. Nordstrom. Apple.

Surely, these companies’ managers and employees are all over Ingredient One. But they also bleed Lean ingredient two: Passion.

Passion – in other words, a belief in what your organization does and how it benefits the customer – is what drives a company’s leaders and employees to the top. What moves passion to excellence? The hard work that must take place internally for an organization to deliver on its promises.

So what can your organization do to cultivate a sense of passion about your Lean journey?

  • Make sure that everyone sees and experiences senior management’s personal commitment, direction and engagement in the Lean process.
  • Develop what Toyota, a master of Lean, calls “Kata” – a well-rehearsed routine that eventually becomes second nature. The process for making improvements is based on the concept of a routine. The Lean journey helps participants learn a new routine of thinking and acting that drives positive change.
  • Involve your people in finding and taking ownership of improvement solutions. This will help them overcome their initial resistance to change and improve their problem-solving and analytical skills – a win win!
  • Lean practices that can include reviewing your company’s performance dashboards and forming teams to actively seek ways to eliminate identified problems.
  • Empower employee initiatives by implementing and actively managing a suggestion system. The improvement idea system at Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing in Columbus, Indiana receives 1200-1600 employee suggestions per month. According to National Customer Center Manager Tom Lego, a vast number of these ideas are implemented within 30 days. Tom explains: “The key is supporting our associates’ ideas and giving them the respect they deserve.”
  • Lean training at point-of-hire: Get new employees on-board with Lean from the get-go by involving them in their department’s ongoing lean activities.
  • Dedicate a full-time resource, e.g. a Lean office, that supports lean efforts across the organization.
  • Internally communicate your Lean efforts often and through multiple channels. Provide frequent updates on your company’s lean efforts in newsletters, emails, groups and company-wide meetings. Recognize and reward lean champions.

Once they’re ignited, purpose and passion can fuel your organization’s successful Lean journey. But you must keep the candle burning. With ongoing support from management, the lean process itself is one of continuous assessment and adjustment. The result: a transformation of how your organization does business that drives customer satisfaction, product or service excellence and financial rewards.

Tony Rodriguez, CMC, president of Daniel Penn Associates, LLC, is a certified management consultant with 35 years experience in organizational transformation. Edited by Joy Chang, digital project manager, CFE Media, jchang@cfemedia.com

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