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Getting Lean Right: 10 Factors for Success

Author: Russ Aikman based on an article written by Jamie Flinchbaugh

Posted: February 2019

Several years ago I came across an excellent article about deploying a Lean Program. Written by Jamie Flinchbaugh, co-author of The Hitchhikers Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road (2005), this article first came out in January 2004. Although it has been 15 years since he wrote this article the information and insights shared still resonate.

Regardless of where you are on the Lean Journey at your company – in the early stages or a decade down the road – the lessons in this article are worth reviewing, reflecting upon, and sharing with others. In many ways the key ideas in this article are more important for those in the middle to upper management ranks than those leading continuous improvement programs.

Here is Jamie’s article, edited for space and clarity, and used with his permission:

Today, there is more than enough information on “what” lean is, more than enough information on lean tools, but still very little useful information on HOW to take on a lean transformation and how to lead the change. Every company’s lean journey starts under different circumstances, and so there can be no one recipe, no “right way.” But there are many factors to consider to help you succeed before embarking on your lean journey. While the lessons are too numerous to count, here are our top ten:

1. Rome wasn’t built in a day

And neither will your lean transformation. Lean is not a one- or two-quarter transformation. It takes one to two years to build the necessary momentum, and from there your journey will last forever. Yes, tools such as kaizens can provide very fast and significant improvement, but without taking the time to implement a program that yields sustainable benefits, process improvements gained by lean tools will slowly deteriorate back to where you started. Significant and sustainable results will occur throughout the entire process, but the most profitable returns are realized through a 2 – 5 year plan.

2. This is not a part-time job.

Don’t expect someone to lead the lean charge in his/her spare time. You need to assign a dedicated leader or team to this challenge. It requires daily attention from leaders who fully understand the scope of the project and who won’t get caught up in day to day distractions. Successful leaders need the freedom to focus on a long-term timeline.

3. Lean is more than just tools

Lean is not born from what you see, it is born from how you think. Lean is a set of rules and principles, not just tools. Tools focus on physical system changes, but that is not where the heart of lean beats. The entire way of thinking must become embedded in every person of your organization. Only new principles or beliefs change behaviors, not systems or tools.

4. Lean is a journey that never ends.

There is a tendency for companies to declare “we’ve done it – we achieved lean.” The truth is, lean is a constant, never-ending process. You will always be striving to be lean, but you never get there. There is always a gap between where you are and your ideal state. If you believe that your journey has ended, you’ve failed.

5. Be prepared for resistance

When change is proposed, people often feel threatened. Some think it’s because there has been something wrong with what they were doing, but most are just uncomfortable with the unknown. As your company embarks on this journey, you must work to help people understand why, what and how. And remove the fears – or make NOT moving forward more fearful.

6. You need leaders to take on this challenge, not managers

Managing is maintaining the current reality. Leadership is moving people towards the ideal state. And you can’t lead people to where they already are. Lean transformation is about leadership. And leadership is not a position or rank – look for people at every level of the enterprise. If lean is about transforming thinking, then in order to lead lean, you must be able to teach.

7. Be prepared for the investment – both people and time

People will need to learn new skills and they will need the time to gain them. This means experimenting with every process everyday to get it right. There is also a financial investment – mostly in training but also in process changes. Evidence is clear that the payback for this period is in months and not years. You can use focused improvement tools such as kaizens to get immediate gains and pay for your investment. The potential difference between lean and non-lean companies is not 5-10 percent. It is 100-1000% improvements in quality, cost, delivery and of course, profit.

8. Lean is not just about operations

Taiichi Ohno, one of the fathers of the Toyota Production System, said decades ago that “the Toyota Production System is not just a production system.” For example, if you reduced your lead time in operations by 90% but order entry takes four weeks, you aren’t really moving forward in the market. You must attack every corner of the business from accounting to human resources to manufacturing.

9. There is no recipe, but there is a roadmap

A recipe tells you exactly how to do something – the amounts, sequence and timing. There is no such recipe for lean success since every company starts with a different set of ingredients (or factors and constraints). However, there is a roadmap. There are guide posts along the way that help you determine where you are and offer potential solutions to help get to where you want to go. Learn from as many other journeys as possible to help understand the roadmap.

10. Don’t just copy the answers

Many people have tried to succeed at lean by copying the solutions that Toyota or others have found, either through benchmarking or out of a book. The problem is, this is like a kid copying off someone else’s test only to find out they were taking a different exam. Each company is unique and will likely have unique problems and constraints. You must engrain lean thinking in your organization so you can find your own answers.

Here is a link to Jamie’s original article: http://nwlean.net/article0104.htm


More about Russ Aikman:

Russ is the LSS Program Manager at TMAC, and started the program in 2003. He is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with over 30 years of experience working in a wide variety of industries, and with small firms up to Fortune 500 companies. He has taught dozens of LSS classes from Yellow Belt up to Master Black Belt. He has also coached hundreds of LSS practitioners on their projects and advised managers on their LSS program. Before joining TMAC he worked at George Group, the first firm to integrate Lean and Six Sigma.

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