How can you enjoy long-term Lean success?  Well, the first thing to do is to define two key concepts.  1) What does “long-term” mean to you and others in your organization.  Is the end of the month long-term?  How about the end of the quarter?  The end of the year?  Two years out?  Five years out?  Most companies have such a reactive culture that they often have trouble going out past an 18-month window. 2) What does “success” mean or look like to you?

Let’s compare that to the Lean experts and perfectionists, the Japanese.  The Japanese culture is such that senior management is urged to make decisions that will create a stronger company for the next generation.  Yes, that’s right.  The next generation.  Their long-term vision is 20 to 30 years into the future.  Since it would be extremely difficult for us to jump from a next quarter or next year mindset to 20 years out, I suggest that you take whatever your current definition of “long-term” is and double that.  Once you have that defined, you have something to put in front of your organization that will help create a long-term mindset.

Top Five

Now that you have a long-term target for people to focus on, here are the top five things that you can do to drive long-term Lean success.


#1: Align the Management

Aligning the management of the organization means making sure that each member of your management team understands the Lean goals, supports a Lean way of running the business, has the necessary people skills to inspire and empower the employees, and is an effective leader in their area.

If you haven’t already heard of our Conversation Framework, SYNCHRONIZE – Directional Efficiency Activity, I invite you to watch the following video: SYNCHRONIZE – Directional Efficiency Activity – Innovative Management Tools

If you haven’t read Jim Collin’s book Good to Great, you should.  It’s a fascinating read.  It’s a comparison of companies over several years to see what made some of the companies remain “good” while others soared to the top of their industry, making them “great.”  One of the first things that Collins talks about is how great companies get the “right people on the bus and in the right seat.”  Having the wrong people on the bus and/or in the wrong seats creates a cascade of issues that challenge the organization.  Having the right people on the bus and in the right seats opens opportunity for greatness.


#2: Align the Infrastructure  

Aligning the infrastructure means many things: 1) setting and managing expectations across the organization; 2) clarifying roles and responsibilities across the staff; 3) making sure policies and procedures don’t conflict with each other from one department to the next; 4) having a recognition strategy that permeates the organization at all levels; and 5) developing policies that promote efficiencies and minimize waste.

While this sounds like a lot to do, once you have your long-term focal point established, aligning the items listed above should be undertaken by the managers and supervisors.  It should not be bottlenecked at the top management level.  Top management needs to guide, review, and potentially approve changes, but other levels must be involved in the change process.


#3: Walk the Walk

Management needs to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.  Employees see what management does and if the message from their actions is unclear or contradictory to the verbal message, employees will more often than not follow the action message.  For example, if a manager is urging people to find and ferret out waste, but then he or she is seen being very wasteful, the employees will not believe waste elimination to be a priority.  If managers tell their supervisors to let the employees make more decisions, but the manager doesn’t give that same responsibility to the supervisor, the supervisor will be reluctant to delegate decision-making.

Employees have many perceptions of management.  Some are founded in evidence, while others are without facts or adequate information.  For example:

  • Management produces a lot of waste
  • Management is often the bottleneck to progress and change
  • Management doesn’t recognize employees enough
  • Management tends to micromanage on pet topics
  • Management always wants the big homerun, not a lot of small hits
  • Management focuses too much on the month or quarter – forcing quick fixes or pivots and elevating stress

Now this certainly isn’t intended to be a slam on management.  It’s simply to show that perceptions are very strong and very alive in organizations.  Employees don’t see everything that management does, and people often make judgments with very few facts.

So, what does this mean to Lean?  Managers need to be very conscientious of their actions, their messages, their philosophies, and their decisions.  It’s not that management needs to justify everything they do to the staff.  Management needs to know when to communicate to the staff so that perceptions are accurate.


#4: Think Long-Term

I touched on this at the beginning of the article.  To help you properly plan your Lean Journey, you should know what you can expect in the first three to five years of lean implementation.  In the first year, finding low-hanging fruit (waste) is easy to find and eliminate.  Targeting the easy items is smart for building momentum.

In the second year people become better at identifying waste because they hone the skill of looking for it.  The low-hanging fruit is gone, so they have to learn how to scour the tree for the fruit.

In the third year the perception is that all the fruit is gone.  Consequently, waste elimination activities get increasingly more difficult.  Unfortunately, what happens in many instances is that the organization gives up and stops the Lean efforts.  Mistake.

What Lean experts have found is that the third year is the most difficult and that after this point, organizations get more creative, more innovative, and more sincere about their Lean efforts.  Lean has become the way to run the business and the “homeruns” are gone.  Now people accept that it will be small hits and they start looking for smaller hits.  Management support, empowered employees, and aligned infrastructure all contribute to the Year Four (and beyond) success.



#5: Empower People

If you come from an organization where the standard modus operandi is to have decisions made in the upper echelons of the organization, the simple thought of having your individual contributors making decisions as often as possible can be a scary thought.  If you don’t have the proper checks and balances, expectations, accountabilities, training, skills, vision, communication strategies, and defined roles in place, it is a recipe for disaster.  The shift to empowering people starts with getting this list of items in place.  As the items get into place, the scary factor diminishes and makes way for a very powerful culture shift.


Long-Term Lean Success: Top 5 Focus Areas

#1: Align the Management

#2: Align the Infrastructure

#3: Walk the Walk

#4: Think Long-Term

#5: Empower People


[I have published other blogs on Culture Shift, moving from a reactive, problem-solving culture to a proactive, situation handling culture.  I invite you to look for those blogs for more detail and insights or click on this link: Creating a Culture Shift from Problem Solving to Situation Handling – Innovative Management Tools]

Instead of doing a rehash of what I’ve talked about in this blog for a summary, I thought I’d put Lean into another perspective.  Many people follow the Covey Principles.  Those of you who do follow Covey know all about trying to find ways to keep people in Quadrant II.  So much of what I’ve talked about over the last few articles is helping find ways for employees to be in Quadrant II and being effective, proactive employees.  As managers, we need to create opportunities for our employees to stay in Quadrant II as much as possible.  Once there is management support, clear direction, positive role models, empowerment, and infrastructure in place, people rise to the challenge and do some very incredible things.

In the next blog of this Lean Series, I will talk about Keeping the (Lean) Momentum Going.

Patrick Seaton