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Implementing Lean – Risks, Pitfalls and Avoiding Them Both

July 4, 2017

Thousands of businesses around the world have been jumping on the Lean bandwagon over the last 20 years.  Of late, we are seeing many medical and service organizations adopting Lean practices as well.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is very few businesses succeed at achieving the level of performance improvement we read about in the books.  There are countermeasures, however.  The key elements to be addressed here include:

  • Initial implementation planning, setting goals and picking the right metrics.
  • Kicking off the Lean implementation process—establishing urgency, vision, and training and development plans.
  • Enablers and roadblocks in key Lean tools, including value stream mapping (VSM), teamwork, empowerment, and Kaizen.
  • Setting up an effective project management methodology.

Initial Planning

All too often, the initial implementation planning is kicked off as a vague desire to improve the bottom line.  Management recommends “something” to capitalize on Lean tools.  Rarely do management team members clearly understand and articulate the desired outcomes in measurable terms that include three critical elements—customer satisfaction, human factors and financial factors.

The focus on customer satisfaction gets a lot of lip service, but usually, it is second fiddle to the financial needs of the owners and stockholders.  While I heartily agree with the maxim that you are in business to “make money today and in the future,” selecting key metrics and goals that will increase customer satisfaction and improving financial results are not mutually exclusive.  Your workers know if company leaders select only profit-minded, internally focused goals.  Goals that make life better for the workforce, such as increasing cross-training and reducing turnover, can simultaneously reduce costs, increase customer satisfaction and improve the quality of work life.

On the other hand, goals that seem only to focus on making more money may result in a loss of jobs without making things better for customers.  Plus, employees will see these efforts as another management ploy to get more work out of people without sharing the benefits or making jobs better.  Because of this, I always insist that the workforce and union be directly involved with the steering committee charged with lean goal setting.

The Kick-Off

Assuming the right objectives are considered, and the vision is clearly articulated and compelling, we next turn our attention to a proper start of the process.  Consider a critical formula for making change happen in any company: C equals D multiplied by V multiplied by S (C=DxVxS).

Sustainable, ongoing change for the better is C.  The other three variables are necessary to find C.  The variable D equals discomfort.  Discomfort, you might ask yourself?  Yes.  Prompted by unhappiness with your current state, you must have a burning urgency for change.  Next, V equals vision.  Without a roadmap and specific destination in mind, you will just be thrashing around, making waves, and not really going anywhere.  Set specific goals and clarify what will get you there.  Finally, S equals skills.  Without the necessary skills, very little will be accomplished.

Make sure you have your key factors in place in equal proportions.  If you have just a few people satisfied with the status quo, forget about real change.  Plan thoroughly.  Compare planning to Japanese-Western management differences.  In the West, companies have time to do it right and, always, time to do it over.  So, companies plan, do, replan, rework, replan, and reworked over and over until it is finally right.  On the other hand, Japanese business people plan, plan and keep planning until we Westerners think we might upchuck, and then they do it—once.  The result is a process that takes half the time at half the cost, and it boasts a higher level of quality.

Roadblocks and Enablers

VSM is a great way to visualize processes, identify problems and uncover clues to fix them.  Unfortunately, people don’t have the time to uncover and examine true root causes for gaps.  So, companies rush through the VSM with only quantitative information.  Due to a lack of rigorous investigation, the response usually is the standard “kick someone in the pants” and fix the problems.

Not only should companies look at the whole, but management team members also have to ask many questions to which they may not like the answers.  It seems like 80% of the time a rigorous root-cause investigation takes place, the cause ends up being management or policy driven.  This is not good news to top managers, who are typically responsible for setting up the processes that way in the first place.  As a result, the VSMs go into drawers, never again to see the light of day.

Teamwork and empowerment that are effective in their implementation are beautiful things to see.  Barriers fall, paradigms are happily broken, quantum leaps in performance occur and spirits are high.  The trouble is company leaders cannot order teamwork and empowerment.  What is required is tremendous investment in training and allowing workers to take charge of their part of the business.  This means the old-guard powerbase must be broken and new roles adopted by those in management positions.

It is an ongoing amazement to me that companies fail to take on the main roadblock to effective teamwork and empowerment—middle management.  It is not because these folks don’t want to do it, it’s because they don’t know how.  Get real with yourself, and middle management by spending the necessary time getting them involved, helping them understand and, if necessary, humanely reassigning them.  The old saying is true: People would rather live with a problem they have than accept a solution they don’t understand.

Arguably, Kaizen is the most powerful tool in the Lean toolbox.  It blends a whole bunch of great techniques into a structured approach that gathers ideas and engages cross-functional teams.  Unfortunately, too many companies adopt a belief that they can reach their goals with Kaizen alone.  If the only tool in your bag is a hammer, do all of your problems look like a nail? What if the nail has a hex head and threads?  You could use the hammer, but I don’t think you would be happy with the result.  Kaizen alone is not enough to change the culture of your company, nor is it suitable to attack all the problems you need to solve.

Effective project management

You can set up an effective project management methodology.  The trick is to put in sufficient structure, planning and checkpoints up front to be effective without creating a “check the box” mentality in the process.

Your plan must be focused on results.  Identify the projects that need to be completed.  Engage the team in determining the resources and timing to get it done.  Document it.  Then, tie together the objectives desired with the effort levels.  Companies do a great job setting objectives, but they fail to adequately plan and apply resources to get the work done.

Lest we forget, it is all about getting results.  Rigorous tracking of the metrics during and after the effort and constant feedback is necessary.  Be vigilant and quick to rally the team and adjust your plan repeatedly, if needed.  The project management approach should adopt a “living-breathing” attitude.  Why?  Because the only constant changes, and you can never know everything you need to know when you start the planning process.



About Ron Crabtree

Ron Crabtree, President of MetaOps, Inc., is an organizational transformation coach/trainer, operational excellence (OpEx) adjunct facilitator at Villanova University, Lean and Six Sigma (LSS) speaker, author and thought leader in business process improvement/re-engineering (BPI/BPR). He is a consultant to private industry and government agencies in supply chain management, design of experiments (DOE), statistical process control (SPC), advanced quality systems (AQS), program evaluation review technique (PERT), enterprise resource planning (ERP), demand flow, theory of constraints, organizational change management, and value stream/process mapping and management. Ron has a BA in Management and Organizational Development, is a Master LSS Black Belt, and is Certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM), Integrated Resource Management (CIRM), and Supply Chain Professional (CSCP) by American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS). If you are an executive and would like to chat with Ron about anything related to business process improvement and operational excellence, please get on his calendar here:

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