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LEI Partners Program Drives Lean Thought Leadership Forward


The Lean Enterprise Institute’s Partners Program—longstanding, collaborative learning relationships between LEI and six organizations leading their own lean transformations—is one of the Institute’s most active areas of research. It’s an area worth paying attention to because it’s where a tremendous amount of gemba and learning activity take place. For LEI, this is learning which feeds back into the Institute’s organizational objectives and activities. As CEO and Chairman of the Institute John Shook, says, “The Partners Program is absolutely core to LEI’s mission. It’s how we stay engaged with what’s happening in the world.”

In the 15 years since the Institute’s founding, LEI’s mission has been to 1) disseminate lean knowledge and 2) generate new lean knowledge. The first part has been relatively simple. The second part is more challenging. It’s where LEI learns about its own value in the community and where activities like the Partners Program comes in.

The six companies currently in the Partners Program are all well-established, large organizations with complex operations and multiple sites of activity. To assist Partners in their lean transformation efforts, LEI makes Institute resources easily accessible and then as appropriate, sends lean coaches out to work with highly-motivated teams and individual champions at each organization to begin problem-solving and transforming processes—big and small, operational and management-related. And LEI acts as a thinking partner to Partners as they explore what lean really means for their business. 

Until now, LEI has shared little about the Partners Program because it’s been an experiment—an intentional experiment with structure, but like all lean endeavors, an experiment. And within Partners, everyone involved has been focused on understanding their own problems better, and deepening their understanding and practice of lean. Only now does LEI have lessons to share about Partners. 

Lessons from Partners on How Change Happens

Change Can Come From the Middle

The collective experience of LEI and its six partners thus far has demonstrated that while change happens at all levels within the organization, and discussion of organizational transformation typically focuses on the role of top management, deliberate attention to generating activities at the middle management levels can be most effective in introducing lasting lean change.

At the program’s beginning, LEI expected to focus its attention on primarily senior executives. Partner executives knew enough about the potential of lean to sign on to a learning partnership with LEI and seemed intent on rolling out lean transformations from the top of the organization. As the program evolved, far more interest and activity came from mid-level managers heading up specific sites and efforts within each partner organization. This is where leaders of LEI’s Partners Program—Dave Logozzo, Jim Womack, and John Shook—came to direct their energy.

A good example of this how one individual has taken the lead in scheduling on-site gemba walks and learning opportunities across facilities. As this person’s role has grown within his organization, he has taken his lean learning with him and invited coworkers to join him in his efforts. In this way the learning has spread both vertically and horizontally throughout the organization. For every project, he asks the same questions: What is the purpose? Is it aligned with the strategic priorities of the business? Are we working on the right things for the right customer at the right time? 

Change Feels Like It Happens Fast, But Usually It’s Slow

The Partners Program has affirmed an insight about lean adoption that Shook has learned repeatedly and yet often forgets, he says: change feels like it happens quickly, but it actually takes time. When it does happen, change is a powerful thing. For most companies that embark on a lean journey, some process changes and behavior changes happen quickly, but noticeable systemic changes—and certainly any kind of real change in organizational culture—these things take much longer to settle in. In his experience, lean change efforts don’t tend to result in visible improvements until at least a few years in. For a company to fundamentally shift its way of doing things, people need to stay with lean long enough to see patterns and begin to work with them.

Slow change means some data, insights, and improvements inevitably get lost over time. But it also allows for things to happen that would never had had the chance to with a short-term commitment or sporadic approach. There any things that only become visible over time. The trick with slow change is noticing these two dynamics (the loss of change potential and the gain of traction) in action, patience, and creating the conditions for more traction to occur more frequently. 

It’s All About Collaborative Learning

The foundation of LEI’s Partners Program is a combination of 1) access to lean learning materials and learning opportunities, including management courses, LEI public workshops, and Summits 2) on-site coaching sessions tailored to meet the specific needs of Partners, and 3) the ongoing exchange of ideas between Institute leaders and leaders/change agents within Partner organizations. 

Each of these things requires a commitment to collaborative learning in order to be successful. For Partner organizations to gain something from LEI courses, they have to do more than send employees to workshops and hope that they learn something. There needs to be a coordinated effort on the part of quality leaders and all team members to apply this learning to the day-to-day work. For LEI’s on-site coaching sessions on A3 thinking to have an impact, Partners must work internally to go beyond using the A3 as a tool and make A3 thinking a part of company culture. And the learning relationship between LEI and Partners is all about collaborative learning; it is a constantly shifting configuration of people, plans, and ideas aimed at improving the work. All of this collaborative learning is much easier said than done. But when it works, it creates more clarity and opportunity for everyone. As Jeanne Kin of University of Michigan Health System says about the Partners Program and the Healthcare value Network, “Seeing what other partners and other organizations in healthcare have accomplished—this gives us hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that seemingly intractable, systemic problems can be successfully tackled and solved.”

Continuing the Collaborative Learning Journey

The Partners Program has demonstrated true lean transformation requires a commitment to collaborative learning and an openness to cultural change. That’s why LEI has made a commitment to learn more about both. After six years of watching Partners’ and others’ lean journeys efforts unfold—watching when collaborative learning has worked and when it hasn’t—LEI has shifted its own focus to exploring what collaborative learning means for the lean field. LEI made collaborative learning, how it focuses and accelerates lean, the theme for LEI’s 2012 Lean Transformation Summit in March. LEI used the Summit as an opportunity to explore this idea further with Partners and community members.

And in an effort to offer more stories of collaborative lean learning to LEI community members, the Institute is now working with specific Partners to share their lean stories, successes, and challenges as learning relationships continue to develop. What have we learned about how lean transformations happen from our Partners? What does this have to do with collaborative problem-solving and the learning organization?