Lean Implementation is NOT the Goal
Nowadays, within all industries, every good result obtained in terms of safety, quality, productivity, and delivery seems to be linked to (or advertised as) a lean management or lean manufacturing implementation.
Considering the above, it is pretty straightforward knowing that lean implementation will do good to our business. However, there are a large number of companies that struggle or fail at the time of establishing a lean culture.
In this article, I share my thoughts on what lean is in its essence, and explain my point of view regarding how, and more importantly, why an organization should embark on a lean transformation to take advantages of lean and excel in a sustainable way rather than “die trying”.
Since the second half of the 20th century, lean philosophy has gained popularity across many industries, with lean implementation being synonymous with productivity, competitiveness and growth. Persuaded by the allure of these benefits and success stories from the east, organizations around the world have sought tirelessly to implement lean manufacturing or lean management.
Operational excellence systems have used lean philosophy as a structural basis, whilst adapting the core practices to the local socioeconomic context, as well as, in some cases, to an “identity” that the organization intends to promote through their implementation. As a result, there are a wide range of lean systems and methodologies that promise, at least from an empirical point of view, excellent results for those organizations that choose to implement them. An example of this are the countless success stories achieved through the application of the Toyota Production System (TPS) within Toyota plants around the world, regardless of the domestic culture of the country where the plant is located.
Thus, today it would seem to be law, that any organization that implements a lean system will have an advantageous position in the market and will have its future success guaranteed.
And it is with this promise in mind that organizations hastily embark on large lean implementation projects, allocating resources to ensure the project is implemented in a timely manner, and training staff on tools such as 5S, Six-Sigma and value stream mapping.
Without a doubt, change management is an important factor in implementing a lean transformation, as we know that human beings by nature resist or feel uncomfortable with change. Transformation not only suggests a change in the way we do things, but also affects the culture of the organization and therefore its collaborators, the people.
When a lean transformation starts, we usually see a burst of energy, where everyone in the organization ensures that the efforts made for the implementation have their impact. It is a common situation to observe that after some time, that initial energy decreases and the actions and attitudes of people do not reflect that desire to change for the better. It is at that time, despite the tireless investment of resources, that people reflect the intrinsic need of every person to have motivation and purpose; even more so when it justifies the courage to face changes.
This is where my argument lies, in that I intend to clarify that the mere implementation of lean and its wonderful tools is NOT a guarantee of success for an organization. We may see an initial impetus due to enthusiasm, expectations, and must-comply-with-the-plan pressure, but experience shows that this momentum is very difficult to sustain. Moreover, an organization’s claim to have achieved success through a single implementation project will adversely affect it, as a result of the resources expended and the demotivation of employees exposed to sudden change without a clear purpose.
YES, lean is a great tool, and lean implementation in the right context demonstrates excellent results. However, lean is just that, a tool, which by itself does NOT guarantee sustained progress of an organization, nor should be treated as a purpose in its own right.
Every organization, regardless of its industry, size or age, is immersed in socioeconomic conditions that inevitably drive it to evolve such that it can exist in the market in the most comfortable position possible, taking care of its future and that of its collaborators. As a result, organizations and their managers must, by choice or forcibly, pose for the company a better future condition to the current one; in other words, they must propose a purpose.
This purpose cannot simply remain within the domain of the managers involved in its genesis, otherwise the outcome will be again the decreasing of energy and motivation of the people, who are being forced to change the way they work and behave (culture) without a reason. Thus, once the purpose is defined, it must be effectively communicated to all levels of the organization, noting that each level has a fundamental role to play. In this way all employees can understand where the company is headed and will be more responsive to the changes that need to be made to achieve that purpose.
Once the organization knows where it wants to go and why, gaining a firm understanding of the current condition is critical to defining the strategies that must be taken for the organization to move towards its purpose. It is this gap which exists between the current state and the desired future state that the organization must close within a given time. Following from this, an organization can then set specific targets defined by time-limited metrics, i.e. key performance indicators and their objectives.
These objectives form an important part of the communication – in this case quantitative – to all levels of the organization. In order to propel the organization forward, towards its purpose; and knowing that people develop when they are faced with challenging situations, it is intended that these purpose-justified objectives encourage employees to strive to achieve them.
It is time to work, to start thinking deeply, and to implement improvements that help us identify and eliminate problems that prevent us from achieving our purpose. With a clear focus on goals, and with purpose in mind, leaders and their collaborators will be motivated to develop a lean capability. Lean implementation will not only bring sustained results to the company, but also personal satisfaction to those involved, both for being part of a united team working towards a common purpose, and for the increase in their skills that will prepare them to take on new challenges in the future.
As with any knowledge incorporation, a learning curve applies. It is the responsibility of the leaders, at all levels of the organization, to follow up constructively on all the initiatives implemented and to respect the standards that derive from them. Such leadership behavior not only helps in the detection of opportunities and deviations along the journey, but also to increase the sense of empathy within the group, and the understanding that both leaders and collaborators work for a common good.
The greatest chance of success does not lie with those organizations that are tempted by other people’s achievements and make lean implementation an isolated and impulsive purpose. It is those companies that patiently analyze and define the purpose of lean, effectively communicate it qualitatively and quantitatively, and use it as a tool to move towards that purpose; fulfilling goals, developing people and enriching their culture through a team spirit; that ultimately have the greatest potential for success.
Juan Bertero is a Senior Consultant of Shinka Management, a lean training and consulting firm with clients in over 60 countries. Juan developed his lean know-how from the Japanese company DENSO, a Toyota tier 1 supplier, and he keeps his knowledge and passion growing. Based in Italy, he is supporting European and South American manufacturers within automotive, FMCG, pharma and mining industries, among others.