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Adopt or Adapt? When Modifying Lean Makes Sense

by Karen Martin
August 27, 2013

Adopt or Adapt? When Modifying Lean Makes Sense

by Karen Martin
August 27, 2013 | Comments (9)

One of the key decisions every lean coach, consultant, practitioner, and leader makes is when to fully adopt a particular Lean practice or when to adapt it.

Some in the lean community argue that adaptation is never wise. I disagree. While a problem arises when the adapt/adopt decision is made without deliberate consideration of the current state and clarity around the intended outcomes, a different problem arises when we succumb to rigidity. As with most things in life, balance is key. We should aim for intentional decision-making and purposeful action based on one question: what will serve the organization best?

Case in point: Clients sometimes ask me to adapt a particular lean practice in the spirit of “flexibility.” After probing, I often learn that classic resistance to change is behind the request. For example, one client didn’t want to name a sole problem “owner” because they have a history of blurred accountability. Another didn't want to visually display key performance indicators, because they weren’t comfortable with the degree of transparency visual management affords. Several clients haven’t wanted to include leaders on value stream mapping teams because “they don’t have time” or “mapping is for supervisors.” Saying yes to requests such as these results in the bastardization of otherwise sound lean practices and a transformation path fraught with fits and starts—and potentially, failure. Saying yes perpetuates the very mindsets and behaviors that need to shift in order for transformation to occur.

Successfully selling the reasons for and benefits of new mindsets and behaviors—nudging when necessary—is mission critical for change agents. On the other hand, some lean practices benefit from adaptation and doing so doesn’t breech an inviolable lean law. In fact, pushing an organization into a space before it’s ready is not only disrespectful, it can produce unnecessary chaos, increase resistance to change, and a create a belief that Lean just doesn’t work. But you have to know the rules to know when and how to break them.

Strategy deployment (hoshin kanri) is an example of a practice that often benefits from adaptation—at least initially. While the ultimate goal is “by-the-book” deployment where organization-wide catchball shapes the plan and every step of execution is put through rigorous PDSA/PDCA paces, experience has taught me that, for many organizations, this isn’t a realistic goal. At least not in the short-term. Many organizations that have achieved significant progress on their lean journeys report that it has taken them three to five annual cycles years to “get it right,” and some admit privately that they’re still struggling to use strategy deployment as intended.

While the ultimate goal is full adoption, for one client it was a significant achievement simply to reduce the number of concurrent projects to create manageable focus. Once they did—and completed all projects on time and with less chaos—the reduced noise created a receptive environment for instilling rigorous PSDA. For another client, it was a significant achievement just to gain true consensus across the senior leadership team about the organization’s priorities. When two vice presidents agreed to delay their pet projects until the next fiscal year to achieve resource-heavy improvement in another area of the organization, it opened the door to play catchball because the leaders were better aligned at the top. And, for another client, it was a significant achievement to engage the next level in the organization in meaningful dialogue about what matters and why. Once the rigid top-down approach was softened through next-level engagement, the leadership team was more prepared to move catchball down a level. They also learned that the planning process would take more time than their previous top-down approach had so they started earlier the following year.

In my experience, to expect perfectly developed strategy deployment plans or four levels of catchball out of the gate is unrealistic. A responsible approach is to meet an organization where they are, while simultaneously challenging (different from pushing) all parties so they build deeper and broader capabilities as quickly as they are able.

Organizational readiness and the pace at which people can absorb new content, shift their mindsets, and develop new behaviors are key considerations when we design a transformation plan. Learning how to ask the right questions, listen deeply, and read between the lines is a critical skill set for anyone involved in lean transformation work. As change agents and coaches, developing the wisdom to know when adaptation trumps adoption is one the most important skills we can collectively develop. Equally important is developing deep proficiency in various lean practices so that adaptation arises not from ignorance or misunderstanding, but from purposeful planning.

It’s important to remember that, while it’s true that lean principles, practices, and tools work for a reason, many of the principles and practices were established from the get-go at Toyota. Transforming an organization that has operated very differently for decades often requires a very different, highly deliberate approach. It’s perfectly acceptable to adapt to achieve a defined target condition as long as the ultimate goal (adoption of the “new way” becomes second-nature) is in clear view. Because at the end of the day, we want the organization to make consistent progress in replacing ineffective mindsets and behaviors with effective ones.

For more details about how to adapt strategy deployment for your organization, see Karen’s book, The Outstanding Organization.

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 August 27, 2013
6 People AGREE with this comment

As I learned working with Pascal Dennis (formerly of Toyota), the key is "not too flexible, not too rigid." 

Toyota continues to evolve their production system and practices in their factories. It wasn't developed overnight in the 1950s and it continues to evolve today. Toyota adapts their own system rather than blindly adopting or "rolling it out" around the world.

There are certain Lean principles we should stick to if we are going to label our work "Lean," but we shouldn't be afraid to adapt a practice as makes sense.

For example, the Lean principle of Andon is practiced at Virginia Mason Medical Center not as a physical cord hanging over the operating room table, but as a communication process that allows people to speak up and to rapidly escalate their concern if not being addressed. It's an adaptation, but it's keeping with Lean principles of quality/safety first and supporting the workers in a blame-free environment.

Your example of an organization not being ready for transparency and accountability - that shows more a lack of readiness for Lean practices more than any adaptation of Lean. Sometimes you have to meet people where they are and let people progress. 

A little better every day.

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Mark Graban August 27, 2013
7 People AGREE with this comment

One other thought... for those who care what Toyota's Taiichi Ohno said about adapting, I stumbled across this quote recently in the book "Taiichi Ohno's Workplace Management."

“You are a fool if you do what I say. You are a greater fool if you don’t do as I say. You should think for yourself and come up with better ideas than mine.”

Interesting quote. I'd interpret that as saying that adapting (thinking for yourself) is probably preferable to blindly adopting something because Ohno, Lean, TPS, Womack, etc. says so.

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Karen Martin August 27, 2013
That's a great quote. Very zen of Mr. Ohno! Thank you for sharing that

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Jason Yip August 27, 2013
2 People AGREE with this comment
Instead of "balance", I prefer to think "mindful" over "mindless". An apparent extreme that is mindful is better than an apparent balance that is mindless

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Karen Martin August 28, 2013
Good point, Jason! It's important for all to recognize that they need to have at least a moderate degree of understanding and proficiency around the principles, practices, and tools in order to be mindful about their use

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James August 28, 2013
2 People AGREE with this comment
The only caveat I would stipulate is when the true underlying principles are destroyed or "adapted" to put a lean name tag on initiatives only for "champions" own political gain. I've seen the ideals of lean be distorted beyond recognition in the spirit of "adapt and adopt" Great quote

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Mark Graban August 28, 2013

I bet we're in agreement that we shouldn't cross the line from "adapt" to "distort." 

Leaders and companies can do whatever they want that makes sense, but there are certain boundaries that, when crossed, no longer make it "Lean."

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Charity Skelton December 20, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Any suggestions of manufactures near Berlin, Germany; that are of high tech products?
I'm searching for an experienced leader of operations in high tech manufacturing. I have come in contact with more "supply chain"/logistics professionals lacking true operations.

Is this common in Germany since outsourcing is preferred?  Any suggestions or insight please


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Karen Martin December 20, 2013
Sorry, Charity but I don't know any Germany-based ops leaders. All the best for a successful search

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