Making Lean Stick – Just What Makes Lean Stick?

By on August 17, 2012
Just What Makes Lean Stick?

The title of this blog, “Making Lean Stick”, directly addresses the primary challenge faced by organizations as they move to implement Lean work processes. To get right to the heart of the matter, here are the facts regarding the “stickiness” of Lean:

  • Organizations worldwide are moving aggressively to implement Lean work processes.
  • Many will fail in their attempt to do so. In far too many instances, Lean will simply not “stick.”

Studies conducted on the rate of failure suggest that it’s between 60 and 70%. Even if the percent of failed attempts was much lower, it would still represent a tremendous cost to the organizations in which Lean failed. It’s my firm conviction that it is far better to never start down the Lean journey than it is to begin and then abort the effort. When this happens, not only has the company and all employees involved in the effort wasted their time and money but, more importantly, a climate of cynicism will have been created and this cynicism will stand as a very potent roadblock to future attempts to implement Lean. I’ve encountered this cynicism in the workforces of far more clients than should be the case. Over and over again I’ve heard comments from line workers such as:

“We’ve tried this before and it didn’t work”

“Is management really serious about doing this? They weren’t last time.”

“Management says they’re serious about changing the way they work with us. We don’t believe it.”

Whenever these types of cynicism and doubt develop, convincing employees that the new Lean initiative is for real becomes even more challenging. How can these roadblocks to the implementation of Lean work processes be avoided? I believe there are three answers to this question:

  1. Don’t start Lean without an inspirational purpose.
  2. Don’t start Lean unless you’re sure you understand what Lean is.
  3. Don’t start Lean unless you’re sure that you personally are prepared to accept the changes that are going to have to happen in the way you do your work.

Let’s address the first issue which is always having an inspirational purpose for starting Lean. Several years ago I heard the CEO of a major St. Louis corporation talk about his company’s difficult but successful drive to implement Lean work processes. He spoke about the large number of companies that fail in their Lean journeys and made a profound observation about these failures. It was this: “The power of Lean is to engage employee’s heads and hearts.” And then he addressed this question: How does one engage the heart? He suggested that for this to happen the leadership of the company has to be driven by a basic set of beliefs having to do with the purpose of their work. He said that his personal ability to be a Lean leader was very much energized and focused by something said by President Woodrow Wilson, “You are here to enrich the world and you impoverish yourself if you don’t see your journey in this way.” He added that he tried to imbue all of his managers with the understanding that in a very real way they were stewards of their employee’s lives and that implementing Lean was directly and explicitly related to improving the quality of their employees’ lives. It is exactly this understanding of the ultimate purpose of work…to enrich the lives of employees…that drives the success of Lean implementation.

Henry Ford, whose thinking was a major force in the development of Lean work processes, clearly recognized the importance of an organization being energized by an inspirational purpose. In his book, Today and Tomorrow, Ford tells us, “The true end of industry is to liberate mind and body from the drudgery of existence by filling the world with well made, low-priced products.”

To do a paraphrase of Ford’s comment, when applied in a way that makes it stick, Lean liberates the minds of employees from what could be drudgery of work by providing them with ongoing opportunities to apply their intelligence and creativity to the improvement of work processes. As a participant in one of my seminars observed, “Nothing is more exciting and energizing than the application of human creativity.”

In this blog’s next installment, I’ll address the issue of not starting down the Lean journey unless you’re sure you understand what Lean is.

As I’ve said in earlier installments, your observations, comments, agreements, and disagreements would be greatly valued. Let me know what you think about the topics we’re discussing. And if you’d like to meet to discuss the use of Lean processes in your organization, you can reach me, George Friesen, at 314-303-0612. Look forward to talking with you.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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