Editorial board member Peter Watkins reflects on Jason Oliver’s interview in last month’s edition of LMJ, and discusses lean in small enterprises.

Last month, LMJ focused on the adoption of lean in smaller companies. In his letter, Roberto said that “in the European Union alone, over 20 million SMEs represent 99% of businesses.” This figure amazed me, and got me thinking. How many SMEs adopt lean thinking? Are small organisations naturally lean? What can large organisations like mine learn from them?

The article on Black Widow Enterprises gave us a great insight on the practical and leaderships challenges a small family-run company faces when adopting lean. Jason Oliver recalled the initial struggle of getting his father on board as new lean concepts were tried out to solve business problems. He went on to describe how they started to practically implement lean and achieve better results from their processes and people. Now they are they are continually using lean to tackle more issues and stay ahead of the competition.

Working in larger companies, where leaders put their own agenda first for political or power reasons, or fear, can be frustrating, and certainly seems to stop or at least slow down the adoption of lean. Reading Jason’s interview, however, I started to wonder whether changing a family’s mindset is even harder. It’s not just business, it’s emotions and family ties. Telling your own father he needs to change could be a challenging prospect for most of us!

One advantage smaller companies have when adopting lean is that they always appear to be naturally customer-focused and innovative around products. However, having a good innovative product without an equally innovative thinking on marketing, sales, manufacturing, service, and customer care processes means you will not stay ahead of the competition.

Changing mindset

Over the years, I have heard a lot of excuses from leaders for not adopting lean. Some of my favourites are:

  • We have always done it this way, why should we change now?
  • We’re different – that won’t work for us;
  • Tried that 10 years ago;
  • We’re too busy. We will start next year;
  • I don’t know how to do it;
  • It’ll cost too much;
  • This will take too long, there must be something easier;
  • We just need the right IT system.

At Black Widow, Jason’s farther was adamant. “We are not going to do that, it is just rubbish,” he said. It seems to be a standard initial stance for a lot of leaders, when it comes to process innovation – why don’t we look at it with the same excitement as product innovation? Maybe we should look at the way we approach people when asking them to change.

I recently read a great article on “Instance Influence” by Michael V. Pantalon, on how to initially influence people when wanting them to change (demonstrated successfully in hospitals). He uses a six-step approach that gets us to think about change from other people’s perspectives, rather than telling them what you want from them.

Step 1: Why might you change?

Step 2: How ready are you to change — on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 means “not ready at all” and 10 means “totally ready”?

Step 3: Why didn’t you pick a lower number? (Or if the influencee* picked 1, either ask the second question again, this time about a smaller step toward, change, or ask “What would it take for that 1 to turn into a 2?”)

Step 4: Imagine you’ve changed. What would the positive outcomes be?

Step 5: Why are those outcomes important to you?

Step 6: What’s the next step, if any?

If we used standard work around how we lead change, could this make us better “change influencers”?

Tenacity is the good trait of a lean leader and Jason continued to influence his father’s thinking until he got to the point where he said: “It can’t make it any worse so let’s give it a go.”

He also explained how he should have been stricter about getting team members on board. True adoption of lean always highlights issues with people as they have to change their role in the company (no matter the size of company) – some don’t want to change, as it’s never been a part of their working life before.

Any company  adopting lean thinking has to change the role of  Team Members away from “just doing the work”, to also creating, maintaining and problem solving  against standards and targets  for the work processes.

For this to happen, a  leader needs to change their style away from command and control. Instead their role will be focused in supporting team members or the next level of leadership to solve problems . This support is given by teaching lean methods , coaching , giving constructive feedback and recognition on process performance,  improvement and behaviours.

Some of Jason’s team members were not comfortable with making this change in role, and would have prevented or slowed down the realisation of benefits – they decided to leave as the new culture was developed by the leaders.

Adoption of lean principles

Jason’s interview made me wonder whether in smaller organisations leaders are more principle-driven because they are closer to the “work” – however, some operational excellence principles are critical to businesses of all sizes, like PDCA, “go see”, or problem solving.

Black Widow started off by using lean tools to improve results which showed how the total system can be enhanced and now the company’s team members are beginning to use these principles to drive improvement in every aspects of the business.


The cover of the June issue of LMJ showed a set of Russian dolls, or Matryoshka dolls, which are also used metaphorically, as a design paradigm, known as the “nested doll principle”. It denotes a recognisable relationship of “object-within-similar-object” that appears in the design of many other natural and crafted objects.

There may be less “nested layers” of resistance in a smaller company to adopt lean, but the same change in mindset is required by everyone.

When it comes to adopting operational excellence principles a smaller company certainly has less “nested layers” of resistance to change to overcome, and often seems to achieve a lot more in a shorter period of time.

Leaders in small companies are closer to the work and more naturally innovative around product and customer needs. But this often makes them too involved with solving problems.

Small company leaders like Jason need to teach and support others in removing the waste, if they are to truly create a continuous improvement culture. In a company of any size, this requires all leaders, team members and even family members to be aligned.