I’ve heard it often: “We tried implementing lean and it didn’t work.” But it’s not about the tools, it’s about weaving lean thinking into your organization’s DNA.

A few years ago, I was touring a manufacturing facility with an organization’s COO, who was highlighting the lean tools he had implemented.

One, in particular, was a very sophisticated computerized dashboard driven by a myriad of sensors showing the status of all of the production lines with numerous detailed metrics.

It was truly an impressive engineering feat, but was it lean?

On the surface, it looked like a sound, real-time visual management tool. However, after speaking with operators, I concluded that while it had potential, it wasn’t lean. Quite frankly, as it was being used, the investment was wasted.

The bottom line was that operators didn’t look at it. They still quantified output by counting pallets using hash marks on a whiteboard (one of my favorite tools). Later that afternoon, I spoke with the CEO and learned that, in his opinion, lean was just a waste of time and money.

Making Lean Work

I’ve heard it often: “We tried implementing lean and it didn’t work.”

As a former business owner and now a consultant, I’ve always found this perplexing because I’ve seen so much success with lean, and that’s across a broad range of industries.

The theme that keeps emerging when it comes to failures is this: someone on the management team has read a book on lean, installs a couple of “lean tools” on the shop floor, and then walks
away and waits for great things to happen.

Problem is: The selected tools are often too complex, have appeal to management but not to anyone else, and aren’t understood by the front lines.

But, most importantly, management fails to make an investment in developing a lean thinking workforce. As a result, the tools are thrown away and lean is deemed a failure.

Starting to Understand Waste

So, if lean isn’t about applying a tool-set that leads to efficiency in operation, what is it? Lean is about shortening cycle times.

When you focus on shortening cycle times, you remove the obstacles that your front line workers face every day, which in turn allows them to spend more time adding value in the process. Ultimately, this is where the boost to operational effectiveness comes from.

In lean thinking, we view these obstacles as waste. In the US, we like to focus heavily on Muda (transportation, inventory, movement, waiting, over-processing, over-production, defects, and under-utilized resources and talent).

There are other types of waste that are often overlooked. They are Mura (imbalance) and Muri (overburden). Mura is created when management fails to smooth demand, which puts an unfair demand on the people and process to produce at levels that may be unrealistic (Muri).

Both Mura and Muri will also lead to the creation of additional Muda as associates scramble to meet demand.

Weaving Lean Thinking into Organizational DNA

Developing and leveraging the talent at the front lines in your organization is always a great place to start addressing Muda. They are the ones who experience the pain and frustration of organizational waste every day. And they usually have great ideas on how to fix the issues.

The short term benefit is that their ideas can often be implemented easily, quickly realizing the benefit, and with little cost. The longer-term benefit is that this engagement weaves lean thinking – that disdain for waste – into the organizational DNA so great things can start to happen organically.

The critical element missing from the opening scene was purposeful training. This means understanding lean objectives, including how tools or techniques should be deployed. To make it work, train your front line workers and their supervisors on the basics and give them some latitude.

Realizing the Limit of Tools

Once teams begin to feel the benefits – usually the work becomes easier and more enjoyable as obstacles are removed – then consider a larger effort.

Be cautious about utilizing lean tools that you may have read about, as they have usually been developed to solve a specific challenge. The tool you need may not yet exist and may need to be created. It’s something we do for our clients all the time.

With lean thinking woven into the DNA of your organization, you have a much better chance of improving your organization’s effectiveness and building a culture of continuous improvement.