Do’s and Don’ts for Getting Lean to “Stick”

Do’s and Don’ts for Getting Lean to “Stick”

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery


It’s not uncommon to hear company leaders say that they’ve tried implementing Lean, but it just doesn’t stick.  As many experts will tell you, “implementing Lean” is not the advised terminology.  Many prefer to use the term “Lean Journey” instead.  There are a few reasons for this.  One is that when you implement something, it implies that you can be finished.  For instance, you can implement an attendance policy by writing it, training to it and put it into practice.  This is not comparable to a Lean Journey.  A Lean journey is about continuously progressing toward a better way of doing things, regardless of where you are.  Toyota did not “implement” TPS.  They had a vision and created a philosophy to support that vision. The philosophy is ingrained in everything they do through vigorous training, practicing and retraining everyone on the philosophy.  They are continuously on a quest to constantly raise the bar and improve the way they function .  They do utilize certain tools that compliment this quest and many refer to those tools as the Toyota Production System, but the truth is that TPS goes deeper than tools.

They do this through a remarkable amount of dedication to their vision of the future.  The long term future.  Through relentless dedication to developing every single person in their organization to understand the future vision and why it’s important for them to contribute to it, they can rely on them to be committed to not only cooperating with the system, but also in developing and improving it.

Lean Manufacturing

There’s no shortcut, there’s no easy way or quick fix to achieve the same level of Lean as companies that have put in the hard work already.  This isn’t always understood.  Unfortunately, top leaders in companies become semi-familiarized with Lean and then become enchanted with the thought of their business achieving the same bottom line results that they see other companies achieve through Lean.  So they go about “implementing” Lean in the same fashion as they would implement new technology.  The problem is that Lean is not technology, it’s a philosophy.  You can’t simply go out and obtain the tools and equipment and install it into your company.  Leadership also can’t delegate Lean, they can’t make it a project for a team to implement.  Leaders are responsible for defining the vision of the future and developing the company philosophy to achieve the vision.

Lean is about continuous improvement and continuous improvement is about change.  I know you’ve all been warned that people fear change.  Personally, I don’t believe this is true.  I believe that people fear the unknown.  If you tell a room full of people that their salary is being doubled, that’s change.  But what if instead, you simply tell someone that there is going to be a mandatory adjustment in their pay?  Do you think it will cause anxiety?  Now it sounds like a gamble.  It could go either way, but fear of a decrease in pay will probably get the best of their thoughts.  Keep this in mind when you approach your team about embarking on your Lean Journey.  If you simply tell them that you are going to “implement” Lean, you will probably evoke anxiety.

So although every company will have a unique journey, we can learn from what has worked and hasn’t worked from those that have gone before us.  Make sure that  you understand where you are going and start by educating everyone on where that is and why it’s desirable to go there.  Motivate everyone in the company to become valuable contributors to the mission instead of expecting them to cooperate with new techniques that they don’t understand or believe in.  By making them a part of the plan, you will completely change their attitude about their role in implementing it.  People will become allies instead of adversaries.  You will create excitement instead of fear.  You will create fortitude instead of apathy.  Don’t attempt to “implement” Lean.  Instead, paint a clear picture of the future, invite everyone to contribute, give them the tools and training they need to get there.  Through education and leadership, you can instill in your team the same desire for “the endless immensity of the sea” that you possess.

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  1. William Ryan
    April 03, 2015 07:59 Reply

    I really like the way you explain the Lean Vision. This is probably the most correct way to look at the Lean Journey and how to make it part of the company wide mind set to become philosophy and culture. This is how you do it right the first time and carefully ,thoughtfully and respectfully. This is how you implement Lean the right way and is the same way we did it where I worked.. Thanks Rob. for your many very insightful perspectives on what really matters the most as the Lean Journey is not just about removing waste…..

  2. Paula Berman
    April 08, 2015 10:23 Reply

    I believe that rumbling noise I hear is Antoine St. Exupery rolling over in his grave. St. Ex was a pilot, and a good one – and the two things you need to be a pilot are a yen for the sky and a lot of flying skills – that is, the “tools” of a pilot’s trade. I agree with everything actually in the article here, but I think the words up top, “Don’t teach your team Lean tools!” are nothing but sensationalism, and are going to doom a Lean journey to failure for anyone who doesn’t read more carefully.

    The right message is in the last paragraph of the article: “paint a clear picture of the future, invite everyone to contribute, give them the tools and training they need to get there. Through education and leadership, you can instill in your team the same desire for “the endless immensity of the sea” that you possess.” You need both the vision and the tools/skills, and neither can substitute for the other. That’s the important takeaway here, and the message up top should be exactly that: paint a clear picture of the future and give everyone the tools and training they need to get there.

  3. Nikhil Desai
    April 10, 2015 04:11 Reply

    While you can do everything right as a change agent to get the practitioners to make it more inclusive and participatory, I firmly believe that before you as a change agent get into the act, a mandatory precursor is for the Management to “set it up” for success. A change agent will have limited success from a position of influence unless the Management from a position of authority has done its bit to align the Lean initiative. Management can have a much larger and successful role (than a change agent) in making its employees feel empowered. A Lean journey in a threatened environment and oppressive culture can be painfully long driven to achieve an external legitimacy than pursuing true internal effectiveness

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