Epic interblog battles break out every week over why lean fails. They’re typically incited by some dastardly consultant proclaiming that his or her laundry list of 27 reasons is more insightful than the last, and always includes, “Our CEO just doesn’t support lean.” Lean Trolls (those that comment more than actually do) then dive into the brawl until they all get distracted by the next critical debate over whether Taiichi Ohno was more like Superman or Batman.
All of us living in Leanworld are well-trained to look for problems, identify gaps, and cure root causes. It works for fixing that pesky third-shift toaster line that stops at 2:37 AM every morning, but isn’t appropriate for complex problems like corporate culture murders that lack simple cause-and-effect relationships. It may be true that “our CEO just doesn’t support lean,” but that insight is about as useful as revealing that supervillains always create chaos when trying to take over the world. Characterizing a problem doesn’t always help solve it.
But thankfully there are ways of dealing with complexity, like seeding simple, leverageable solutions to spread like (good) viruses. Instead of trying to eliminate all evil by simultaneously fixing 27 constantly changing variables, what if we could give the organization an Underdog Super Energy Pill by initiating a few critical improvements? While I cannot claim strict statistical proof by only looking across several dozen companies, I have found some useful success factors that were also lacking in the failures:
- Being lean with lean. If you want your dog to stop wandering off, the last thing you should do is scold it when it returns. If we want our organization to embrace lean, the last thing we should do is make it hard and unpleasant. Forcing everyone to do an A3 each month, tracking each project’s cost savings, grading progress towards someone else’s maturity model…are unpleasant, wasteful, and don’t do much for creating an engaging experience. Lean succeeds when those doing the work recognize that it helps them do their work easier and better. If our process of trying to get lean takes more effort than it reduces, then we probably won’t save even a little corner of the world.
- Agreeing on a real need to get better - where lean is the how, not the why. Many claim you need a “burning platform” to get emotional buy-in for large scale change. That sounds good, but there is little, if any, empirical evidence to support it. Many of the best lean companies I’ve seen were already doing well and needed improvement to support continued prosperity. Regardless of our situation, if we can get everyone to agree “we need to change to enable our realistic business strategy” and “lean is how we are going to drive that change,” then we are starting well. Faking a crisis undermines our credibility and “doing lean” because “lean is good” isn’t much better.
- Building upon existing “leanish” behaviors. Humans learn faster and deeper through incremental extension of existing knowledge and behaviors - supported by experience, repetition, and emotion. Unknowingly, most of these successful organizations didn’t start their lean journeys from scratch. Instead, they built upon existing constructive behaviors that also reinforced some elements of their lean model. They were already either customer-focused, value-driven, supporting their people, partnering with their suppliers, scientific problem solvers, or simply just very data-driven. To them, lean seemed like a natural extension and they could easily learn and apply adjacent concepts like adding developmental coaching to supporting their people, or supplementing being data-driven with visual management.
- Individuals doing their own meaningful improvement work. It’s a mystery why so many organizations still believe they can outsource improvement to an army external consultants, large internal CI departments (see Mark Reich’s latest Lean Post), or even to bosses to solve front line problems. There just isn’t any scientific data to back it up. “Outsiders” forcing the board of directors to hold 10-minute standup meetings or salespeople to use kanban cards is unlikely to solve the problems they see as most important – it just drives more waste and overburden into an already broken system. But, if we can engage more people (including our CEO) to identify and solve their own specific, strategically important problems, then we greatly improve our odds of changing important outcomes. Those who do the daily work (no matter what job or level) should be the ones wearing the L-embossed capes.
- Naturally emerging solutions and culture rather than planning in a vacuum and forcing. MIT’s Edgar Schein described culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration…” In other words, culture is a resultant, and if we want a culture of good learning and problem solving, then by gosh we need to practice good learning and problem solving. These successful organizations didn’t jump to adopting others’ solutions they saw in a book or plant tour - they took their time to understand what their problems really were, what was really causing them, and whether their own proposed solutions really worked before standardizing. In doing so, they solved more problems while creating better, more emotionally-satisfying solutions. Oh, and their unique cultures evolved more rapidly too.
In October 1987, Paul O’Neil was almost fired as the new CEO of Alcoa. Like many companies (even today), Alcoa was convinced that their ineffective management system could better diversify their business than shareholders could on their own. Paul knew a major change in thinking was necessary, so he chose his first big investors meeting to announce that Alcoa’s #1 priority was…dun, dun, dunnnn…WORKER SAFETY! Wait, what??? Ohhhh…holy organizational insight, Leanman!!!
Long story short, this simple seed accomplished several things that supported Alcoa’s turnaround. First, it demonstrated management’s commitment to its people, and once workers got over that initial shock, they became engaged. This led to better communication, collaboration, problem solving, and eventually proactiveness - all of which were later leveraged for improving the overall business. And wouldn’t you know it, over time the culture was indirectly improved significantly.
There are never internet arguments over whether lean is hard work – it truly is. BUT, many successful companies have proven that it can be much easier and more rewarding if lean is applied to itself. To get a better start or to improve our current path, we can keep asking our organization these questions:
- How can we make our lean journey more effective by making it easier?
- What’s already working here that we can leverage?
- What new seeds can we plant to grow our improvement capabilities?
- Do we really need brute strength or can we be smarter in our approach? Superman or Batman?