To benefit from Lean, tread a middle ground

Great ideas deserve a pragmatic approach, not dogma or hype.

Published on 31 January 2017 by Isaak Tsalicoglou.

Unnecessary, ill-timed hype is one of the largest root causes of failed Lean initiatives.

Have you ever seen Lean initiatives start with a big hype, turn into a bureaucratic process improvement rigmarole, and finally being given up, typically slowly and silently?

If so, then you have experienced the culmination of one or more failure modes of attempting to "implement" Lean.

But what is the reason? Is it Lean ideas? Is it the way they are communicated? Perhaps it's the organization's fault for not being "Lean-compatible"? Or are Lean fans simply not loud enough to convince others of the wonders of Lean?

If you are interested in an often-avoided potential explanation, read on.

Lean ideas are great - and insufficient

I like Lean.

Similarly to many of you with a penchant for making things better, I've read and watched a lot regarding Lean concepts. I've also had many opportunities to interpret and apply Lean ideas in logistics administration operations, in R&D, in product and service development, and even in project management.

Without a doubt: Lean delivers the goods, when applied > pragmatically.

Lean is a great set of ideas that has verifiably helped numerous companies to reduce waste (thus also to cut cost) and to create more value. Unfortunately, that has also been the order of focus, cementing Lean as a cost-cutting management fad in many minds.

However, for everyone else without such experience of hands-on success with woking according to Lean, there is often confusion, rather than clarity about Lean – despite the fact that Lean ideas have been with us in the West for many (20+) years.

It's not about a lack of knowledge

As with any complex system regarding human behavior and change, there are many root causes for this confusion, and the resulting stagnating or failing attempts to "implement Lean" (Lean is unimplementable, anyway).

As an example, these include (but are not limited to) a lack of alignment across hierarchical levels, insufficient discretionary funding for pilot projects, and unrealistic expectations imposed by management and consultants on pilot project teams.

Some "Lean priests" bemoan the lack of awareness and knowledge of Lean as the largest root cause, and proclaim:

"If only our people would really get how Lean simply makes sense!"

Yet, knowledge and good-enough understanding of Lean is a commodity. Lean is being taught in universities and MBA programs, trained in corporate training courses, and preached in numerous articles and case studies.

You can read one of the many (frankly, too many) books or watch a YouTube video and learn about Lean. Lean would have no chance to ever succeed if it required triple PhDs and/or an MBA degree.

No, a lack of access to Lean knowledge isn't what is blocking companies from benefiting from Lean.

Few people, especially among those with "Lean" as part of their professional identity, are talking about one of the largest root causes: unnecessary and ill-timed hype.

Hype reflects a lack of pragmatism regarding change

In my experience, one of the largest (if not the largest, by far) root causes delaying or even preventing business success with Lean is the following:

Lean is often being communicated and sold as the end-all, be-all answer to all business challenges.

The key problem is that the usual approach to "doing Lean" in larger, complex organizations is a romantic attempt to apply lofty ideals on the messy reality of business and its operations. This represents two issues with implications that are quite incompatible with Lean itself:

  1. A lack of pragmatism and the willingness to make tough business trade-offs. Implication: Lean is a given solution, we just have to do it by-the-book.
  2. A lack of understanding of how people change behaviors, and of what Lean calls "pull". Implication: Lean is the inevitable solution, we just have to yell it louder.

Often, the very people tasked with creating value by putting Lean concepts into practice are the ones who set themselves up for failuresimply by talking too much about Lean and its promises.

This can (and often does) lead to unrealistic expectations on all levels of the organization. The resulting push-based attempt to "implement Lean" (as if Lean is, e.g., some IT system that you just install) turns people off and leads to change fatigue, cynicism, and bureaucratic compliance to whatever has been "installed" as Lean.

Ultimately, in many organizations, nowadays Lean (and "agility") is just another fad, much like TQM, Six Sigma, BPR, and phase-gate before it; all of them useful ideas that in many cases were transformed into tools of a strengthened bureaucracy, instead of tools for creating and capturing more value.

Organizations that want to actually get value out of Lean fast need to lead pragmatic change instead of just sharing some internal slides patting themselves on the back on how they are "more Lean", "doing Lean", or even "becoming Lean".

How this is to be achieved in practice is an entirely different post (but you can read a bit more about it here).

Lean hype is the reference mode

As with many other change and improvement initiatives, Lean hype is the dominant reference mode: i.e. what typically happens in an organization that mismanages how ideas get put into practice without much ado.

One key reason for this is that Lean is mostly communicated in a polarized manner, and often simultaneously:

  1. As a set of very specific hands-on methods, tools and clever ideas with impenetrably mystical and "cool" Japanese names.
  2. As a set of lofty ideas and principles to do business by, akin to a philosophy or religion (for some, even something to live by).

We can debate endlessly about which one is true. Probably both are, and that's OK. And, guess what? (spoilers ahead)

Nobody who is asked to apply Lean really cares about Lean-theological arguments.

Smashing the feedback loop

There is a way out of the "Lean hype" reference mode, which I have experienced to be reliably successful. Yet, it's also what the fewest practitioners/preachers of Lean dare or are able to do:

Go beyond Lean navel-gazing; focus on changing mindsets and behaviors; lead change instead of managing the application of Toyota's tools.

Here are some ideas on how you can achieve this:

  • Stop the political correctness of conflating Lean with "the only right way to organize operations". It probably is, but bludgeoning stakeholders doesn't help.
  • Openly question whether Toyota could have stumbled upon the one, true approach that is supposed to work anywhere and in every business and cultural context.
  • In Aikido-style persuasion: first, admit that some of your Lean pilots are underwhelming, and then invite open criticism from all levels - and listen. Don't only "Plan" and "Do". Also "Check" and "Act".
  • Stop using the Lean Manufacturing treatment on every single aspect of your business. No, you are not more productive by standardizing your desktop layout and the location of your stapler. And yes, one-piece flow in R&D is counter-intuitively detrimental.

Finally, and most importantly: Tread the middle ground. Take Lean beyond Japanese buzzwords, and also down from the theoretical stratosphere. Bridge the theory-practice and knowing-doing gaps by looking at how Lean fits your organization, not the other way around.

How to achieve this? Deceptively simple, and at the same time tough to do: Apply Lean on its own adoption; i.e., how should you market and sell Lean internally in an organization to enable pull-based, gradual adoption?

Set-based on Lean adoption itself

This post is long enough as it is, so I would like to leave you with a final thought for a more hassle-free and business-minded approach to getting an organization to adopt Lean concepts.

Within Lean Product Development there is a concept called "set-based development". Simplified, this includes the creation of multiple potential paths to success, the exploration of their trade-offs, the repeated elimination of the weakest paths, and the re-use of insights from all paths examined, good and bad.

This gradual evolution relies on also understanding what doesn't work for your specific context and avoiding expending effort (and later, rework) on it.

Getting Lean from concepts to practice, as everything involving people, is a tricky endeavor. To get it right somehow, it's more business oriented and prudent to know where not to end up, instead of trying to predict and plan for the right solution, like the old waterfall approach.

And that, compared to point-based mandating of what Lean should be for your company, is rather more compatible with Lean as a business philosophy.

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