After spending two decades leading lean programmes in a variety of global organisations, I’ve learned there is no magic formula for success. There are no text books, consultants, or lean masters with all the right answers all of the time. Besides, the very nature of what we do relies on the idea of continually learning and improving what we do based on the results of our actions. This concept of continuous improvement is nowhere more critical than in the need for a flexible lean strategy to allow a degree of adaption and change as things get tough.
And things will get tough! Even before launch, the organisation will harbour a high degree of healthy scepticism and resistance that will require a coherent strategy, vision, and purpose to articulate the what, why, and how of the programme. Your chosen strategy will need to clearly address both the internal cultural dynamic and external competitive pressures, and be fully communicated and deployed throughout the organisation if it has any chance to succeed. A recent study by SA Partners showed that in a typical deployment, less than 20% of the staff could articulate the strategy or understand how it would have any impact on the success measures of the organisation.
Caution! The lack of a “magic formula” often results in delaying a much-needed lean implementation. The desire for “right first time” can be overpowering and lead to analysis paralysis. In this case, the leadership team delays launch until the strategy has been perfected, socialised, and advertised across the business. On the other hand, another company may decide to just jump right in and build or adapt the strategy as it learns from success and failure of lean activities. Both approaches are neither inherently right nor wrong. This simply illustrates that there is no single right strategy for a lean deployment.
So without a prescribed formula, what’s a leader to do when faced with the need to develop, launch, lead, and sustain a lean programme? My suggestion is start with what you teach. While the five lean principles are not a formula for success, they do provide a clear structure for understanding the value streams or processes within your company, and how to satisfy customers through eliminating or reducing the wasteful activities that your customers are not willing to pay for. Lean is not all about cost takeout, offshoring work, or job elimination. By starting and sticking to the five lean principles, your strategy stands the greatest chance of flexing and adapting to the inevitable challenges and detractors that may try to derail your efforts.
When true to the core of lean principles, a successful rollout is no different than any other strategic implementation. Don’t expect too much too early, overthink what success looks like, or get hung up on doing things one way forever. Lean is about constantly learning and improving. Why should your lean strategy be any different?