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Continuous Improvement is Good, But Is It Lean?

by Dave LaHote
May 6, 2015

Continuous Improvement is Good, But Is It Lean?

by Dave LaHote
May 6, 2015 | Comments (12)

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about a new State “Lean” program. The State website offered examples of how “Lean” has helped State government. There where examples sited on how the Lean Blackbelts had run improvement projects that had resulted in “79% reduction in steps and a 59% reduction in handoffs.” In each case I reviewed the “issue” that had been identified to work on was something like “the need to improve, simplify, and standardize.” Nowhere did I see a mention of a taxpayer problem or issue that was being addressed.

The State was offering Lean Boot Camp to local governments building off the success they said they were experiencing in State government. Let me start by stating I like continuous improvement, but as I have often heard my friend Jim Womack ask, “Is it sufficient?” Improvement seemed to be taking place just for the sake of improved efficiency. 

In my old business we focused on trying to create sustainable competitive advantage. Process improvement was critical, but only when it was focused on improving the right processes. I see several important components that separate a Lean Transformation from generalized continuous improvement:

  1. Lean must be strategy driven. The question all organizations face is not what processes can be improved (the answer is all of them), but rather what processes MUST be improved. In other words, where are the gaps in performance that matter in terms of accomplishing competitive advantage? This needs to be the focus of improvement. When senior leadership delegates Lean to the technical/professional improvers it is no longer strategy-driven and often becomes improvement for improvement’s sake. People often talk about how senior leadership needs to be involved in lean transformation, and I agree. However, they don’t need to be involved in kaizen events, waste walks, or tool usage. They need to make sure that the lean efforts are accomplishing strategy.
  2. Improvements must be made by the people who do the work. Improvements only last when the people who do the work actually change the work. The people who do the work know the most about it, and when we help them deeply understand processes, see the connection and impact their process has on the entire system (value stream), see improvement opportunities, and change their work processes… only then do we get sustainable results. But most of us want to take a short cut. We have the lean folks (after all they have the colored belts and know how to use the tools) lead “improvement projects.” With the best of intentions they make process changes with limited involvement by the people that do the work. Oh sure, the workers are represented on the team, but it is the lean army (as Mike Rother often calls them) who are calling the shots. As a result, workers mostly feel the changes were forced upon them and therefore changes often don’t sustain themselves. 

What is happening in your organization? Is Lean clearly directed and connected to strategy? Are senior leaders directly involved in specifying the process improvements needed? Will the process improvements you are focused on improve your competitive position in providing value to your end customers? Is your focus first effectiveness in terms of value delivery then efficiency? Are your associates confident and experienced in improving their processes? Is your lean team coaching rather than doing? 

Regardless of our position in the organization we need to be asking these types of questions. If we don’t see our continuous improvement activities strategically focused, then change it. Remember, no matter what your position or level is in the organization ask what must be improved not what can be. Most importantly, let the people who do the work make the improvements and changes. Resist the short cut methodology in favor of getting the workers deeply involved in their work processes. It may feel like it is taking too long, but remember the lean saying that one needs “to go slow to go fast.” We want to make changes that create sustainable competitive advantage, and we need to do this one small step and experiment at a time. Sounds slow upfront, but over time it is the only thing that actually works. 

There is a difference between continuous improvement and Lean.


The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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Mark Graban May 06, 2015
5 People AGREE with this comment

There are certainly Lean principles beyond the The Toyota Way principles of continuous improvement and respect for people. In the scenario at the start of your article, the customer (taxpayer) perspective seems to be missing.

I see similar things in hospitals, where people use 5S to straighten up or tidy up the nurse's station instead of focusing more directly on improving patient care or things that matter more to the customer (patient).

I agree that not all continuous improvement is Lean - the customer perspective, strategic fit, or even respect might be missing. For something to be called Lean, I think it must include continuous improvement. To hear people say, "We've been doing Lean for five years and now we're going to start doing Kaizen," I'd argue that what they were doing wasn't really Lean if continuous improvement, involving everybody, everywhere, everyday...

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Dave LaHote May 06, 2015
3 People AGREE with this reply

I agree Mark.  Lean with a business/customer purpose beats lean for lean's sake anytime.  Also, if you are doing "lean" stuff but you are not getting real process improvement and better customer results why would one be doing it?


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Alex Hulshof May 06, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply


Lean is a Japanese (Toyota) philosophy in which every one of the company focuses on creating value for the customer by minimizing waste.

5S, continuous improvement, kaizen events, value stream mapping, pdca, go & see etc., are all part of the lean toolbox to create value for the customer.

Lean is focussed on the customers.


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Christin Spurlin May 06, 2015

Great article. Really captures the underlying purpose of lean practitioners: to teach away our jobs.

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Rick Bohan May 06, 2015
2 People AGREE with this comment

Sure, you could "continually improve" stuff that just doesn't matter much.  I once facilitated a team at the steel mill I worked for that wanted to, no kidding, replace the paper towel dispensers in the locker rooms with those air dryers.  I tried to talk them out of it but the team insisted that it was going to, by gosh, rid the company of lots of paper waste.  (The team eventually lost interest and moved on to something else.)

On the other hand, another team designed and proposed a new lunch room...after the existing one was demolished by a slab that got loose from an overhead gantry crane.  (No one was hurt, thank goodness.)  Not, strictly speaking, lean or furthering "sustainable competitive advantage" but important nonetheless, right?

My point is that not everything that's important and worthy of improvement is "lean".

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Dave LaHote May 06, 2015

Thanks for the comments Rick.  As I said improvement is a good thing and everything can be improved.  I'm all for improving things and I always encourage people to go where the energy is helping people make all improvement ideas implementable.  The concept of improving processes has been around since the dawn of man.  I just hate to see improvement efforts wasted on things that don't make a difference to the real success of the organization.  And worst yet, I hate seeing unfocused waste hunting become the main activity of folks dedicated to helping organizations improve.

Thanks Dave

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kevin kobett May 07, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Unless you are a science major, you have no knowledge of the scientific method upon graduation. If you are a science major, mostv likely you have not been through a practical application of the scientific method.

When do you learn?

I believe any attempt to apply the PDCA cycle at work is lean. It does have strategic application because it trains employees how to use the scientific method. It is similar to batting practice. The goal should be to knock out all these little things so you can actually see things happen.

In the food industry, non-contact hand drying is a great idea.

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Ron Phipps May 09, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

"Not everything that is important is strategic."  Not all improvements are based on lean focus or principles.    Some improvement is important also for its ability to create momentum, confidence and engagement.  Too much emphasis on only doing what is strategic and lean leads to missed opportunities for employee driven / smaller, continuous improvements. If you want those who do the work to improve their work, then you should promote these. Bigger projects should be pipelined based on criteria that includes strategic alignment and lean based metrics.  In oher words, it is important to be doing the strategic AND what encourages employee engagement and ownership for sustainability, even when it isn't a strategic metric (and maybe it should be)... 

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Dave LaHote May 09, 2015
2 People AGREE with this reply

Thoughtful points Ron.  I want people improving their jobs everyday.  The concept of asking and supporting "what ideas do you have to improve your process?" is ia great way to build confidence and momentum.  This small daily improvement is absolutely needed and I am in no way trying to discourage it.  For the organization to make significant progress there also needs to be strategically driven improvement.  With a good Hoshin process one can connect daily improvement to organizationaly sucess.  This is what really gets an organization fired up.  Making improvements in my job everyday and knowing that those improvements are helping the organization accomplish its strategy and business success.  At all levels in the organization, management's role is to create the connection of employee involvement and improvement to organizational sucess.  Managers need to be system thinkers so that we don't end up just optimizing points that really are not all that important to the whole.

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Kuldeep Tanwar September 05, 2017

Nice article, mainly the two points Lean must be strategy driven & Improvements must be made by the people who do the work explained well and agree to it.

Also first time think about the words “There is a difference between continuous improvement and Lean” and my understanding and overall view point on this is  

The benefits of implementing Lean can be broken down into three broad categories;

  1. Operational
  2. Administrative
  3. Strategic Improvements

Most of the organization who plan and go for Lean Transformation focus primarily on operational improvements, because of the perception that Lean only applies to the operations side of the business, and if you consider Lean up to only operational improvement than  the common definition of Lean – “A systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste (non-value-added activities) through continuous improvement by flowing the product at the pull of the customer in pursuit of perfection” fits perfectly.

When we consider the other benefits of administrative and Strategic Improvements then your statement is very true.

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Bill Roper September 11, 2017

Sorry for commenting so late, but I recently experienced a prime example of the difference between CI and lean.  It is too easy for CI to be limited to improvements of an existing process, by supervision and employees, versus rethinking a process using lean principles.  Something as simple as introducing one piece flow can have a profound impact on process design and effectiveness that would be completely missed if application of lean principles are not part of the improvement effort.

The good news is that the business involved finally understood the difference and the importance of formally incorporating lean principles as part of the improvement effort.  It shocked me when I realized what they had not been doing under the CI banner, but I was pleased that it was a real learning event for management.

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Dave LaHote September 11, 2017

Thanks for the comments Bill.  I'm glad you were able to apply some lean thinking in the example you cited.  I agree with your observation and wrote something about it in a post a few years ago called "Improvement for the Sake of Improvement Means Nothing".

I find too many organizations simple improving waste and making it more efficient in the name of improvement.  You are right that lean thinkers must constantly be looking to understand value and its delivery rather than focussing on waste.

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