If LEAN is a four-letter word at your organization… you’re doing it wrong.


Maybe you are reading this because you are a lover of LEAN thinking and LEAN management systems just like I am but already knew that LEAN can have a bad reputation in some organizations. Maybe you are a leader in an organization and have a bad perception of LEAN. I want to hear from both sides of the table on this one about why that is the case, but in my opinion the following things might be happening:


1.The organization is too focused on results and less on culture.

LEAN is a lifestyle, not a diet. If your organization was pushed into a LEAN journey with the sole focus on financial results, I agree you are probably disappointed that the short term gains were not sustained. You went on a process diet. You did not engage everyone in the lifestyle. Old habits crept in and you’re back on the couch. Improvement cultures feed off of the ideas and continuous engagement of everyone, everyday, being empowered to make and lead change. Cultures that take smart risks, promote innovation with a lack of judgement around failure, allow the right ownership, support quick trials, ask questions and observe where the work happens… that’s where LEAN thrives. Success means continuous access for everyone to the skills, tools, and mindsets that LEAN creates.


2. LEAN is optional for executive leadership.

Individuals in leadership roles change constantly, but leadership processes and best practices can transcend the churn if sponsorship and resources are utilized to keep it going. Standard work, strategy deployment, and managing for daily improvement (all parts of a lean management system) can become integrated in the organization as non-negotiables through the leader onboarding process and ongoing coaching with direct reporting relationships. If someone who went through a bad LEAN journey ends up in charge, it can cause a ripple effect across the organization unless there’s proven processes embedded to share that yes, this is working for us, our people, and most importantly, our customers. If you only care about what your boss cares about, and your boss cares not for LEAN, neither will you in the long run.


3. Leadership development is looked at as something totally different.

If the talent management team and the LEAN team are like oil and water, you will never have a sustained improvement culture. Successful improvement cultures rely on both behaviors and processes. If you maximize people’s individual development without empowering them to change their work processes, they will leave for greener (more autonomous) pastures. If you focus too much on processes and ignore behavior, sustainment is unlikely and true engagement is even farther off. LEAN management systems rely on strong leadership behaviors such as humble inquiry, trust among teams to empower individual contributers, strategic and systems thinking, and prioritization. Development and process improvement need to be married, not at odds.


4. It was too complicated.

The core tenants of LEAN are around simplicity. If you rolled out too many tools, too much complexity, used intimidating language, and created a gap between people who “knew” LEAN and those who didn’t, the culture was doomed. Finding ways to make LEAN and an improvement culture resonate for everyone should be the first milestone on the journey!

I am sure there are more reasons why LEAN became a four letter word in some organizations but in true improvement fashion, lets learn from these organizations to do better next time.

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