Lean is not an “off-the shelf” commodity

A recent discussion on LinkedIn led me to think about some of the mistakes made by companies when considering lean or other improvement journeys. This especially applies to established companies with strong cost accounting decision making practices.

A reply from an award winning and experienced consultant and author to a recent post by a continuous improvement advocate made the point that executives must show a significant return from any initiative and that trying to sell the less tangible aspects of improvement is like selling a truck without a test drive. I can’t say I disagree with this point of view. No one’s going to buy an improvement program just because a version of it works for someone else. Here lies the misconception. If someone has to sell you an improvement program, you’re probably not ready for it.

The consultant was correct in saying that Toyota’s drive for improvement came from crisis, and it did to a great extent. However, the company already had a culture of improvement that was inherent to the Toyota family and carried over from the Toyota Loomworks where Sakichi Toyota developed the concept of Jidoka. That philosophy is now so embedded in Toyota that it is overlooked by people that try to copy the tools, thinking that the answer lies there. It is possible and likely that Toyota Motor Company was able to survive and ultimately thrive from crisis as a result of culture that already existed.

Today, I don’t think any company can successfully embark on an improvement journey without coming up against a number of traditional business assumptions. Assumptions that ultimately have to be questioned to move forwards. These include assumptions about:

  • The level to which you’re prepared to listen to and act on the ideas of even the most junior team member
  • How return on investment is calculated when it comes to improvement
  • How long you’re prepared to focus on improvement as a way of life
  • How committed you are to the target vision
  • The importance of people development and coaching

I’m lucky to work for a company where the owners realised early on that improvement was essential to survival and therefore is a fundamental value. I’ve also worked for companies whose commitment to lean lasted as long as it took to find out that the philosophies of lean were in direct conflict with the company’s values.

There is no question that improvement is a journey of years. Large step changes in performance are achievable over short periods in time by implementing lean tools. Long term sustainable improvement year on year however depends on the establishment of a deeply rooted culture that consistently moves towards a shared target vision. There is no quick fix. From my experience, companies that implement tool based programs often get significant results in the processes those tools target but may also end up neglecting processes outside the tool’s reach such as administrative or customer facing processes. This is not always the case but the difference between the companies that successfully implement tool based programs across the whole of the business and those that don’t is the degree of leadership support at the highest level.

A concerning trend that has emerged over the last ten years is the ‘packaged improvement’ that is being peddled by consulting companies. These organisations sell lean thinking like it’s a commodity.

I don’t have anything against consultants in general and in fact I would highly recommend that companies seek out an experienced mentor to help them move forwards on their lean journey. However, I would steer clear of anyone that suggests that there are “eight steps” or “20 principles”. Go for someone who spends the first half an hour asking “Why” you are interested in this path and seriously probes your commitment levels before agreeing to work with you.

It is ironic that a minimalist philosophy that encourages companies to reduce non value adding activities is now available as a consumer product.

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