Posted on July 3, 2016 · Posted in Leadership, Lean, Lean Thoughts, Lean Training, Sensei


The Speed of Lean

A colleague recently asked me an intriguing question.  He queried:

“Is the [Sensei-led] method of Lean implementation too slow?”

Great question!

Why?  Because I think most managers would answer it in the affirmative.  That is why they are willing to “invest” large sums in consulting firms that will come in and “deliver Lean.”

Consider this: Contrary to popular opinion, Lean isn’t about eliminating waste.  It’s about transforming a culture to be customer-centric in all it does, and to uphold a deep respect for people.

Okay, the customer-centric part gets you all the tools and waste elimination.  The respect for people changes your relationships with employees, suppliers and communities (local, national, global).

You can teach tools.  You can use metrics to set and measure progress against goals.  Handled properly, that leads to improved customer relations, growth of market share and an improved bottom line, but Lean isn’t just about money, and that’s the dichotomy between the customer-centric part of Lean, and the respect for people part.

So, is the Sensei-led method too slow? The answer depends on whether you want the transformation to be sustainable.

If not, then speed is of the essence. Make hay while the sun shines, because the storm clouds are already forming on the horizon.

Without senior leaders, who have invested time to understand Lean, and who are leading the transformation themselves, the transformation is doomed anyway.

If, on the other hand, the transformation is led from the top, the transformation stands an excellent chance of not just surviving, but thriving.

Keep in mind: we are talking about a cultural transformation. Cultures are made of people and people change slowly. You can’t transform an organization quickly; hence, speed is actually a problem.

If you’d like to reach the stage at which your organization has true continuous improvement, it will only occur when employees trust their leaders. Building trust isn’t an overnight process, especially if one or both parties feel it was betrayed previously.

So, again, speed actually militates against long-term change.

My colleague also asked: “Wouldn’t a fast growing company struggle with a slow-paced transformation?”

Absolutely! But think about it. A fast-growing company is going to struggle anyway.

Trying to overlay Lean on top of rapid growth will only exacerbate problems. While not impossible to overcome, rapid growth creates a difficult environment for Lean to succeed.

I remind the reader of what Akio Toyoda, then President of Toyota, felt was the cause for the Sudden Unintended Acceleration (SUA) problem which led to the recall of some 10 million cars. It wasn’t poor design, nor poor craftsmanship, nor poor maintenance, nor operator error. Instead, he is quoted as saying: “… what caused the recall issues we are facing now? Toyota has, for the past few years, been expanding its business rapidly. Quite frankly, I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick.”

If Toyota could fail while trying to rapidly grow 60 years into their own “Production System,” imagine how difficult success would be for those without Toyota’s legacy of leadership.

A question my colleague didn’t ask, but a corollary of this discussion, is how large a consultancy to hire. To hire a team of 10 or 20 or 50 consultants is to come down on the side of speed: drive Lean into the culture as fast as possible. As I’ve already said, people change at their own pace. You can’t rush the process.

The factor that drives the speed of a transformation turns out to be the speed at which the leaders embrace Lean.

The sooner they make Lean their business system, and not a tool to eliminate waste, the faster the transformation will go.