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The truth about ‘Lean’ and why you’re not getting the results you want.

By: Dennis Keay

If you’ve tried applying ‘Lean Manufacturing’ or ‘Lean Thinking’ principles in your business, and you’re not getting the results you were expecting, it’s most likely due to one of the following reasons and it’s not your fault:-

You’ve been sold a lie

You’ve been led to believe one or more of the following:

  • Lean is just a set of tools
  • Lean only applies to manufacturing / production areas of your business
  • Lean is a ‘project’ that you implement then it’s ‘done’, rather than a way of operating your business
  • It’s ok to have your people trained in Lean while you and the leadership team go about business-as-usual
  • Once people understand Lean principles, they will, or should just go and apply them
  • Your business is too small for Lean
  • Your business may not be ready for Lean

Now try replacing the word ‘Lean’ with ‘Continuous Improvement’ in all of the dot points above. Would those dot points then seem contradictory to common sense?

The Truth

The term ‘Lean manufacturing’1 was used to create an immediate mental image of a highly productive manufacturing system in comparison with a slower more cumbersome one with a bit of ‘fat’ that could be trimmed. Think about the mental image of a lean and fast animal such as a cheetah, in comparison with a slower cumbersome one such as a walrus. The term got interpreted differently by different people over time, so now, if you ask 100 people what they think Lean Manufacturing or Lean Thinking is, you’ll likely get 100 different answers.

Lean IS about Continuous Improvement, across all facets of the business, including Sales and Marketing.  Sure, it’s about removing fat or waste from processes, but it’s much more than that.

A key point is that it’s a way of thinking and operating your business and if done properly is very people-centric. You need people at ALL levels to understand and embrace it for it to be truly effective. It’s NOT something that senior management can simply delegate to those below. The leadership team needs to be fully involved…and in fact, it’s their responsibility to do so if they want the type of results that Lean can actually provide. I’d go so far as to say it’s a Strategic Imperative and should be treated as such. It can give you the edge over of your competitors you’re probably looking for.


It’s all about mind-set! The main obstacle as I see it is that many business leaders believe they know exactly what Lean is and aren’t open minded enough to accept that they don’t, or aren’t willing enough to explore further. They’re the ones that won’t be reading this article.  They’re the ones that say, “We’re already doing lean!”, or “We tried it last year and it didn’t work!” But that’s OK, there’s no law that says businesses have to improve the way they’re doing things and become more productive and profitable.

It’s commonly believed that people don’t like change. Sometimes business leaders tell me that their people don’t like change or will be resistant to it. The truth is, people love their comfort zones!

But ask yourself…would you like your business to run more smoothly and profitably? Would you like it to change for the better?

That’s the point…people embrace change if they see that the change can be painless and benefit them, or that the pain is well worth the gain. All things being equal, no one will object to a change in their pay rate provided it’s an increase and not a decrease! No one will object to you helping make their life easier, provided they’re convinced that that’s what WILL happen as the changes are made.

To that extent, implementing change is about engaging people and preparing them for the changes they will be involved in. It’s about marketing the benefits to them and selling them on the idea. But be prepared…you need to deliver what you promise, otherwise Lean will just become another fad in your business and people will convince themselves that ‘we tried it and it didn’t work’. To this extent, it’s best if you implement it right-first-time, otherwise resistance may build and you’ll have more convincing to do second time around…still doable though.

If you’re already applying Lean principles and practices in your business and are wondering how to put your results on steroids, or if you’re not yet applying Lean across various aspects of your business and want to know the best way to go about it, just contact us via and let’s have a chat.

1 In 1988 John Krafcik, a Mechanical Engineer who was doing research for his Master’s Degree, first applied the term ‘Lean’ to describe highly productive manufacturing systems. He was studying under James Womack who popularised the term as joint author of the 1990 book “The machine that changed the world: The story of Lean Production”.

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