When I hear about the Lean transformations going on at companies today, both large and small, I find they are quite different compared to what I experienced nearly 20 years ago.

Back then, our Lean transformation was based on the simple ideas of:

  • We’ve got a ton of problems affecting our customers.
  • Lets improve things right now!
  • And let’s make many improvements simultaneously.

We had energy. We had spirit. Our focus was on quickly understanding the problem and making significant improvements. The only charts we made were the charts related to kaizen and the work actually going on in the cells.

Now, I see bureaucratized micromanagement of Lean activities. I cringe when I hear of companies that:

  • Use project management tools to manage process improvement activities.
  • Calculate ROIs to justify doing kaizen.
  • Turn kaizen into a planning activity.
  • Require people to get permission for management to eliminate waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness.
  • Improve related things in series, rather than in parallel.
  • Take weeks or months to make even small improvements.
  • Spend a lot of money (instead of ideas) to make improvements.

What is happening here? Leaders are merging non-Lean and Lean ways of thinking and doing things. Lean is force-fit into existing leadership routines and management practice, thereby greatly reducing the power of Lean. Making Lean fit into existing leadership routines and management practice kills the spirit of Lean, and, consequently, greatly slows down the Lean transformation. It should not be so hard to understand that.

Lean is perhaps the one and only chance an organization has to replace current leadership routines and management practice. But this is not happening, except in a few cases. Leaders who posses Lean intelligence recognize this great opportunity and act  on it. They prefer the simple approach to Lean transformation: do it, do it right, do it every day, and improve how you do it.

They are driven to test the limits of truth and understanding by paying attention to both process details and people details. They generate and transmit the spirit of Lean and create widespread enthusiasm. They make Lean fun, and by doing so they make work fun. That’s how you transform an organization.

2 Responses to The Spirit of Lean

  1. Dave says:

    “Leaders who posses Lean intelligence recognize this great opportunity and act on it”… From my point of view, we still lack Lean leaders in general. How can we grow the army of Lean Leaders? How can we raise the Lean IQ in this country?

    I recently moved into a company where most of the management team came from automotive. I expected to see a level of Lean Thinking that I was not accustomed to. Unfortunately that was not the case. Yes, they know the tools, but that is about it. Why!

  2. Bob Emiliani says:

    These are good questions, which people like me try to answer through education (books, university and professional development courses, videos, etc.). It’s a challenge to get leaders to go beyond the tools, in part because it takes a long time for them to recognize the data showing that tools are necessary but not sufficient.

Leave a Reply