Saturday 26 February 2011

Why doesn't lean stick?

I've often been asked by clients and colleagues alike "why doesn't lean stick?"

Clearly this is not a totally true statement. We can all point to examples of companies with an ingrained lean or six sigma culture. However this is not the norm, and in many cases far from it.

I have regularly seen both private and public sector organisations jump on the lean band wagon. Undertaking lean workshops, rapid improvement events, Kaizen events and so on. Quite often these events give the company great benefit and deliver efficiencies, improved team working and all the other benefits they'd hoped for.

So why doesn't it stick? Why don't they continue these events and undertake the strive for perfection? After all, they know it works, they may have invested in training staff to facilitate, mentor and support the improvements; many even have their own lean academies ... but lean just isn't embedded.

So here's some of my thoughts on why lean doesn't stick ....
  1. There is no big plan for it! It's not communicated and planned as part of either the business as usual or the change plan. It's just a trial or pilot event. As such everyone goes along with it to make the boss happy. The team delivers the benefit and then moves on to the next big thing.
  2. Where's the buy-in? Either the senior management are bought into the benefits, or the pilot group are bought into the desire to improve their area. But very rarely are all staff bought into the process and the benefits. In fact, quite often there can be resentment against perceived benefits.

    I've personally seen employees feel neglected as their colleagues in the pilot area are lauded as the new heroes. I've seen workforces concerned that the efficiencies delivered will mean job cuts or additional work.
  3. The workforce never owned it. All too often consultants come in and make it look easy but don't leave a truly sustainable team behind that can really deliver it. Yes the training has been done, yes the facilitator has work shadowed an event or two, yes the facilitator is a capable 'good' chap or lady. But that doesn't mean they can actually deliver ongoing programmes. They may still lack confidence, capability or the influence to convince their colleagues / stakeholders of the changes necessary.
  4. Skills and experience are tough to get. At the heart of lean is an enquiring mind and a sixth sense for what tool works where. To achieve real change you need these skills and often in-house lean facilitators will need time to acquire them (if they ever can!) Time is something they rarely have. They are not allowed failures and are expected to have a perfect record of delivering unbelievable benefits. This is clearly unrealistic. Nobody becomes a guru overnight.

    Often the solution to this is to hire experienced practitioners. This can give benefits and quick turnaround but points 2 and 3 still come back at you!

Maybe the answer to the above points is really simple ... almost lean!

Maybe it's ok not to embed Lean throughout the organisation.

Maybe for some organisations the journey to perfection is too much of a stretch.

Maybe if you have a team, it needs to be small, expert, integrated and delivering measurable ROI.

Maybe it's ok not to invest in lot's of training, academies, handbooks and consultant speak.

Maybe you can just use lean when you have a specific problem area. Call in an expert for a few days to fix the issue. Replicate the solutions where appropriate and then get back to business as usual.

 Lean is without doubt a great set of tools to have in the toolbox. I'd recommend all organisations to have them. But like any tools they need to be used appropriately.

Whatever approach(es) you use, they need to be considered, planned, value for money and not just the 'next big thing.'


  1. Jon - I like this article. Particularly because it's very clearly pointed at a specific application that will resonate with folks - the "We tried Lean, it didn't work... why?" brigade. There must be a lot.

    I bet you could do an even more tailored set of articles industry by industry weaving in specific examples and stories of succes and failure. Eg: Why doesn't lean stick in Healthcare? (Or why does Lean work so well in Healtcare - for that matter.)

    Welcome to the blogosphere!

  2. Interesting article Jon. Whilst lean is obviously a bit of a fad - process improvement clearly can improve business performance. Another question is "how do you educate lean professionals to look beyond the tool kit?"