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Doing Lean Versus Becoming Lean

by Jim Luckman
July 25, 2014

Doing Lean Versus Becoming Lean

by Jim Luckman
July 25, 2014 | Comments (11)

We live in a world where organizations address opportunities for improvement by rolling out programs. These programs are defined, deployed, and tracked for adoption. The idea is that cultural mindsets, tools, and policies are things that should be applied to organizations. Programs are often defined at the senior levels of the organization, deployed by the middle managers, and expected to be adopted by the lower level employees. Programs are thought of as a solution to a problem, a solution that – if applied to the whole organization – will fix the defined problem.

For example, many companies "do Lean" to achieve a cost cutting objective. Many lean efforts follow this program methodology. Unfortunately, we know that the program method of deployment is not successful. Over 70% of change efforts fail and most of these use some form of program thinking for deployment. And we know from experience that Lean is fundamentally driven by a change in company culture, not a methodological "application" of the Lean tools.

We call the program method of deploying Lean "doing Lean". Doing Lean will leave you frustrated and lacking sustainable change. You might be "doing Lean" if you've done the following:

  • You might be doing Lean if you have tied the program to cost savings
  • You might be doing Lean if you count the number of Kaizen events each year
  • You might be doing Lean if you are tracking the number of people who have gone through lean training
  • You might be doing Lean if you expect to win a Shingo prize in a year
  • You might be doing Lean if you have delegated Lean to a central continuous improvement group for deployment
  • You might be doing Lean if you are assessing each function in your organization and giving them a score for adoption

What's the alternative?

Let's begin with the idea that Lean, at its most fundamental level, is about creating a complete organization of problem solvers who are engaged in solving the right problems at the right level every day. To accomplish this, leaders must focus on the development of the people and the system to be successful at problem solving. This concept is not typically built into our organizational cultures, and therefore requires determined daily practice from all employees - from senior leaders to frontline workers. This concept requires that the entire organization, each level and each function, understands its role in solving value stream problems that will aid the company in achieving company success.

The process of learning how to problem solve requires selecting small groups, defining problems for them to solve, giving them some guidance on how to solve their problems and following up with a disciplined process of PDCA for continued learning. Let's call this alternative process "becoming Lean".

You are likely "becoming Lean" if you're doing the following:

  • You might be becoming Lean if your leadership has selected specific problems to be addressed, a small part of the organization is learning new problem solving skills to address these problems, and rigorous PDCA discipline is practiced to ensure learning and continuous improvement.
  • You might be becoming Lean if you have small groups of people who are getting excited about how they have been given responsibility for their improvement efforts with clear, measurable and continuous reinforcement from leadership for their efforts.
  • You might be becoming Lean if you understand your business is comprised of interconnected value streams designed to provide value to the customer, and you are beginning to align your business system to support improving your value streams
  • You might be becoming Lean if the leaders can define your annual goals in terms of value stream performance gaps and select the correct parts of the organization to address these gaps based on effective problem breakdown
  • You might be becoming Lean if your managers know how to solve problems and understand their role is to develop their employee's problem solving capability working on real problems
  • You might be becoming Lean if you notice people learning the basics of problem solving, and this is growing organically across the organization without your intervention
  • You might be becoming Lean if you notice the dialogue between people is more respectful
  • You might be becoming Lean if you feel trust building and greater safety in exposing real problems

There are many differences between "doing Lean" and "becoming Lean". Most important to you and your organization is the focus on addressing customer needs, more engagement from all employees, and faster, more effective cycles of learning designed to solve problems and improve the nature and value of the work.

Moving from "doing Lean" to "becoming Lean" is more than just a change in organizational objectives. It requires a mindset of curiosity and experimentation, a commitment to learning and reflection, and a willingness to focus on and build high quality relationships among the individuals in the organization. Sometimes "just do it" may be the right answer, but when it comes to Lean, true change comes from becoming a new kind of organization.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  leadership,  management
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11 Comments | Post a Comment
kevin kobett July 25, 2014
9 People AGREE with this comment
You are doing lean if you write for the Lean Post.

You are becoming lean if you respond to comments to your Lean Post and facilitate a discussion.

Reply »

Mark Graban July 25, 2014
11 People AGREE with this reply
I don't understand your comment, Kevin.

Great piece, Jim. There's a huge difference between "Doing Lean" and "Being Lean." Too many people hope that Lean will be some sort of easy, quick fix - like weight loss surgery or a magic pill. Lean is more like commiting to eating right and exercising daily...

Reply »

Ken Hunt July 25, 2014
4 People AGREE with this reply

I'm with you on Kevin's comment.


Spot on. I find it interesting when I go to workshops and seminars and hear how many people say "Oh ya, we're doing Lean", and then they spend 10 minutes venting their frustrations. They are doing it, but in fact are not LIVING it every day.

Reply »

Elizabeth Luckman July 25, 2014
5 People AGREE with this reply
I also don't understand your comment, Kevin. 

Well said, Mark.

One of the big differences between doing Lean and becoming Lean can be found in relationships.  It takes curiosity and genuine concern for others to build the kind of trusting relationships required to 'become Lean.' Becoming Lean requires an ethical framework of care for others.

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kevin kobett July 25, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment

IMO my comment is crystal clear. There are at least two sensei posting here. You can tell they’re sensei because they always complete the PDCA cycle. They plan their posts to be broad in scope in order to appeal to a large audience. They write their articles. They check by engaging customers (readers) in the comment section. You can tell they are checking because they ask questions. You can tell they are adjusting because they will gratefully admit they are learning with you. 


Most of the other authors are not checking and/or adjusting. If you are not finishing the PDCA cycle, you are not embracing lean.

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kevin kobett July 28, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
You might be doing lean if you give readers five easy ways to give positive feedback.

You might be becoming lean if you also give readers an easy way to give neutral or negative feedback

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Mark Graban July 28, 2014
2 People AGREE with this reply
Kevin - one way in which your comments are unclear... they, at first glance, appear to be directed at Jim Luckman, when it seems you should be providing this feedback to Lex and the Lean Post / LEI folks more directly if you're suggesting adding a thumbs down button or something.

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kevin kobett July 28, 2014
3 People AGREE with this reply
I do not do public personal attacks. If one of the guys who I would call sensei wrote this article, my comment would have been the same. When I saw the wagons being circled, I immediately replied so nobody would lose any sleep.

Lean is about using positive and negative feedback to make changes. If your product is sold on Amazon, do you only read the 5-star comments? Why can't lean post readers see an example of using feedback to make changes? I would like to see you guys publicly figure out how to gather complete feedback. What is a better lean lesson than that? I will not interfe.

Middle managers who wish to discourage lean always say, "Use the proper channel."

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Hollie Jensen July 28, 2014
4 People AGREE with this comment
This article helps to more clearly articulate the difference between an improvement project focused organization and a 'learning' organization.  The 'dong Lean' pitfalls are classic traps and at times seem unavoidable with the pressures that exist to show PROGRESS (as defined by some).  You have to really 'go see' to understand the progress, it can't be defined by number of emplyees trained or projects ran - or even ideas generated.  Real porgress on the Lean journey shows up at the Gemba where leaders and employees have their heads together using PDCA to solve problems and customers are benefiting from this effort. 

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Tom Walsh July 29, 2014
4 People AGREE with this comment
When I read this article, I see overuse of a buzzword.  I would think that the eight bullet points that are listed as becoming Lean are things that every company or household is becoming, regardless of whether they know any lean philosophy.

Try this, replace lean in the article with any popular buzzword that consultants use today: Green, Sustainable, Collaborative, Innovative.  Adjust a few minor details and boom, next blog article. 

Let me know if I am mistaken here.  I am trying my best to come around to understanding the lean philosophy and this article has me more confused than I was when I first heard of it.

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Trevor Elliott April 18, 2017

Many times the companies that were "doing lean" become the ones that merely did it. 

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