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Why Lean Doesn’t always work!

Some people get way too hung up about labels and definitions.  I’m a ‘Lean’ Consultant and Coach, where I’m referring to ‘Lean’ primarily as a business improvement philosophy and way of thinking.  Originally, the term ‘Lean Manufacturing’ was coined, referring to ‘triming the fat’ from manufacturing processes. But the under-lying principles and practices typically apply to all business processes (and many non-business processes as well).

Unfortunately, many Lean trainers and practitioners view Lean simply as a set of tools.  In many organisations and applications, Lean has proven not to work. Or has it?   I’ve found a suitable analogy to be ‘A poor tradesman blames his tools’. It’s not ‘Lean’ that hasn’t worked, it’s ‘How it’s been applied’!

To be supported by senior management, Lean has to kick business goals and deliver results that the business values. This includes reducing costs and improving customer satisfaction at the same time, while delivering better products and/or services with less delays.  To do this, bottlenecks in the business (which may include information flows and administrative processes) need to be identified and streamlined.  If bottlenecks are not targetted, then Lean will typically create excess capacity at non-bottleneck processes, and this can on occasion lead to more chaos and delays by flooding existing bottlenecks. Judicious application of lean principles at key focus areas, such as bottlenecks, optimises the use of scarce resources and creates a direct return on investment. But how does one know how?

For me, Lean is about ‘system thinking’ and understanding ‘Why’.  It’s also very much about engaging people at all levels, most importantly, at the senior levels. If top management doesn’t ‘get it’ then the Lean initiative is doomed to mediocrity or failure. Lean isn’t just a set of tools that get applied willy-nilly.  Teaching someone how to apply Lean is like teaching them to drive.  Nobody would consider teaching a learner driver just one element at a time: “First week we’ll cover the accelerator, then when you’ve mastered that we’ll do steering; after that we’ll move on to clutch and gears, then the next week we’ll do brakes!”  That approach would surely end in catastrophy on the road, and it wouldn’t be the fault of the car! So why is it that Lean is often applied like that in business?  In many cases, it’s the blind leading the blind. In some cases, it’s the well-meaning but inexperienced and over-confident manager who, like a learner driver, is eager to make fast progress, but who doesn’t yet have the experience to properly read the road ahead, and who doesn’t yet have the skills of a seasoned rally driver.

For those of us who have been driving for years, yes, driving is simple. So is Lean. But not so simple that we can just read a book and think we know it all. Learner drivers aren’t allowed to simply read a book and then jump behind the wheel without close supervision and instruction. And even after they’ve been driving for some time under the guidance of a more experience eye, they need to demonstrate competency, by way of driving test, before they are able receive their licence and go it alone.  Lean is just as simple, or complex, as driving. If you want a safe journey, that takes your business from where it is now to where you want it to go, then Lean is certainly a vehicle that can take you to fantastic places, but it has to be driven appropriately. Minimise the risks by taking the time to learn from an expert who will provide appropriate guidance as you develop your driving skills…and have fun on the journey.

© Copyright: Dennis Keay, 2011