What Is the Value in Lean Thinking? And How Can It Fail?

Written by Craig Saxby on Mar 15, 2018

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As Head of the Interim Practice at EO Executives, I work with specialist interim experts, who are hired into organisations to lead major change and transformation programmes. A key reason our clients engage with us to source experts for such projects, is that they have a specific goal in mind.

Lean Thinking is one of those goals. Many organisations carry out Lean Transformation projects to minimise waste throughout their manufacturing process, but the objective is always to ensure productivity remains the same. Or event better, increases.

But do they really work and how can you ensure success?

To delve into this further, I spoke with leading and highly experienced Operations Manager, Paul Dakin. With over 25 years’ experience in managing large complex PLC/SME industrial sites, Paul has a deep understanding around what Lean really entails.

There is a continual stream of LinkedIn posts around the top reasons for why ‘Lean Transformation Programmes’ fail. They usually focus on the failure of some aspect of the process itself, or the inability of the organisation and its people to drive through the usual and inevitable problems that they will encounter.

Paul shares his thoughts:

I am not a consultant but an Operations Manager with 25 years' of practical experience of applying Lean Transformation across a range of manufacturing sites. Over that time, the three key points I have learnt are that...

1) Lean management is just structured common sense.

2) The success of any Lean Transformation Programme stands or falls with the company leadership.

3) It is all about people.

This post picks from my experience of when Lean works in seven key quotes. The first Joseph Paris quote neatly explains the WHY of Lean. The second “Anon” quote is the best definition of what Lean is. The rest of the quotes cover the HOW of Lean.

  1. JOSEPH PARIS: "If you do not have a formal CI programme in today’s increasingly competitive markets, by definition you are falling behind". So WHY Lean? The failure of so many companies to have any kind of viable improvement programme is staggering. They seem to believe that there will not be another downturn. They fail to realise that these days they need to compete globally in an environment where customer expectations are continually rising. Satisfaction with the status quo is frankly just poor leadership. Change is just too difficult. As Deming said "Change is not mandatory, neither is survival"
  1. “The true aim of a Lean Transformation is to reach a point where every person in the organisation can see the flow of value to the customer and can fix that flow before it breaks down”. I prefer this definition of the WHAT of Lean to the normal one of removing waste from the system as it focuses on the primacy of people. Assuming that a business has a market and the intrinsic capability to meet those market needs, the main differentiator from its competition is its people. Consider the quote. How would your business perform if every person were aligned to an overall common goal of providing excellent customer service in terms of offering, quality, delivery and cost?
  1. SHINGO SHIGEO. Lean is a way of thinking NOT a list of things to do. This ties in with the previous quote. Lean is all about respect for people. Lean is not a quick fix. It is not a new CEO’s programme of the year. If Leadership do not understand what Lean means, lead the change and demonstrate the appropriate values then the troops will see through them, and there will simply be another failed programme.
  1. EDWARDS DEMING. “A bad system will beat a good person every time”. In-effective business systems are the biggest blockage to any successful improvement transformation programme. Deming said that every organisation should be viewed as a system made up of independent components (people and processes) that need to work together to try to accomplish the aim if the system. Like natural systems (respiratory, digestive) the aim for any system should be that everybody gains rather than one part of the system at the expense of any other. No improvement programme will be successful when employees are spending all their time firefighting business system - based problems.
  1. EDWARDS DEMING (AGAIN):"If I had to summarise managements main function in a single phrase it would be to reduce variation" Most business leadership do not understand variation, in particular the difference between common and special cause variation and how to react to each. Common cause is intrinsic to the system (errors, scrap, rework) is predictable within a certain range. Special cause is less frequent but of high performance impact (change in raw materials, machine failure etc). The problem is that poor leadership tends to see all errors as special cause “it must be someone’s fault, DO SOMETHING” rather than the natural variation of the system they themselves are responsible for. The ONE best way to reduce common cause variation is standardisation. It is the most powerful but most overlooked tool in the Lean toolbox. It really is obvious. Take out common cause variation by standardising the business processes so everything is done in the same way every time. Improving standards within the SDCA/PDCA process is the basis of any CI process. Then, when all the noise is taken out of the system people have time to properly respond to special cause variation.
  1. BECKETT: Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better. This is all about how people learn. It really is very obvious. All good Leaned out organisations empower and train people to innovate and problem solve within the Plan-Do-Check (or Study)-Act cycle (PDCA cycle). It is the way that people learn and how they get a deep understanding of the value chain processes they are responsible for. Working through the cycle:
  • 1) Planning is about making a choice between options open
  • 2) Doing is about putting the ideas to the test and, most importantly, dealing with facts not opinions,
  • 3) Checking is analysing results against expected or desired outcomes and
  • 4) Acting is deciding to adopt the change, modify it or abandon it and try again. Sometimes people will fail.
The trick is to capture the lessons learnt from the failure. The flip side of this approach is the easy blame root. “Whose fault was that”? “They should have known!”. It is a weak cop-out of bad leadership and management.

  1. CHINESE PROVERB. “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime” This again is all about the primacy of people within high performing organisations. Companies spend vast amounts of money attempting to bring in and impose “one size fits all” CI transformation programmes. They may work for a short time but unless the potential of the basic talent of people within the organisation is understood and built on then the results will be disappointing at best.

Of course Lean management is a lot more than a few quotes. If it was easy, then the failure rate of Lean transformation programmes would not be as high as it is (70%+). However, what the quotes tell us is that any transformation programme leading to a Lean culture takes time, effort, perseverance and a focus on people. It also helps to have someone on board who has experience of working through the problems before.

One final comment. I am an unabashed fan of W. Edwards Deming. He tends to be narrowly associated with the development of QA processes. In fact, he was the original management guru whose philosophy laid the foundations for the Lean based Japanese industrial revolution after the 2nd world war that now underpins all good management practice. His “System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK)” should be made compulsory reading for any Company Leadership who really wants to understand what good management is all about.

 To find out more about Paul, click here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/paulrdakin/

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