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Home > About Us > News and Articles > Managing the Lean Transition


By David Dixon (as printed in Fabricating and Metalworking)
Last month we set out a number of key requirements for mounting a successful lean implementation. Above all, we suggested that the leader of the company would have to be very knowledgeable about lean and committed to the lean journey. We concluded that, even given a high level of leader commitment, the journey would not be easy.

There are four major reasons that companies fail in their effort to implement lean: (1) They simply quit too soon; (2) they are "temporarily" distracted; (3) they lack a reasonably stable, educable work force; (3) lean succumbs to a high level of resistance to change in the organization.

The first three impediments are overcome primarily through the leader's firm commitment to lean and the careful management of priorities and resources. Resistance to change can be more complicated and difficult.

For every successful lean implementation there are many failures, where "failure" is defined as an implementation that never really provides all of the benefits that were promised. The company is "kind'a, sort'a lean," but doesn't enjoy the full economic, performance and cultural benefits of a World Class enterprise.

Technical-Organizational Change

When an organization successfully implements any new technology or operational approach, it will have passed through four distinct phases of change: (1) enabling, (2) technical transition, (3) behavioral transition and (4) institutionalization.

As its name implies, phase 1, the enabling phase, provides the go-ahead, the funding and the support for the initiative.

By the end of phase 2, the technical transition is complete. In the case of lean, cellular layouts have been organized around selected value streams. Faster setups have been engineered. Perhaps some line (or load) balancing has been done, at least on paper. Early efforts to standardize work will be under way, including the embedding of error-proofing measures. Some work on 5S housekeeping will be complete. Preventive-maintenance routines are documented and are being followed. What is missing is the true execution of lean, as evidenced by the smooth flow of work carried out by a skilled, knowledgeable work force.

On completion of phase 3, operators have been fully trained and have embraced the new technologies of lean. Old habits and practices have been abandoned. Teams measure their own performance and respond spontaneously to changes in mix, volume and complexity.

Phase 4, institutionalization, is complete when the values surrounding lean have been internalized and there is no tendency to "backslide" into the old way of doing business.

Resistance to Change

Everyone resists change. We all acknowledge this phenomenon, but the fact is, we deal poorly with it. Virtually every failure of a sound technical implementation of lean can be traced to people's resistance to change.

People resist changes in the tools and approaches used in performing their work because, consciously or unconsciously, they feel they will in some way become less secure or more vulnerable in the work setting. There are two primary means of overcoming resistance to change. One way is to alleviate anxiety through careful education and training; the other is to initiate and manage organizational momentum so that the resistant person is "pulled" along.

Change Management

Resistance to change breaks down when people understand lean techniques completely and come to believe that they will help rather than hinder or threaten them. Providing a thorough understanding of lean and fostering confidence in it requires education and training. "But we always do some education and training, don't we?" Yes, in most of the failed lean implementations we observe there was some education and training done—but typically not enough, and not done well enough.

Here is the problem: adult human beings are reluctant learners. Our minds are locked in a lifetime of pre-conceived notions and a mindset that is not conducive to new learning. We must therefore provide education and training that "unfreezes" the learner, presents him with new knowledge at a time when he really needs it, and allows him to practice new behaviors. This is a tough challenge which is compounded by the fact that we often have to educate and train people, throughout the organization and in the environment, with widely varying learning needs.

It is necessary to assess the learning needs of various individuals and groups during each phase and provide technical education in direct response to those needs.

Unfortunately, even with a perfectly designed education and training program, quite a few people will still resist the change. These holdouts tend to come around when confronted with a peer group whose majority membership is committed to the change. These conditions can be purposefully created by organizing the training and the lean implementation around kaizen events and other activities that demand hands-on, collaborative application of newly acquire knowledge and skill.

By educating and training people in teams and assigning them implementation responsibilities in their work areas, we encourage ownership of the concepts as well as specific projects. We cater to the adult learner with a "learn by doing" approach, and we create a group dynamic that works against resistance to change.

A key to this approach is to train and engage the senior management team first! Acting as a steering team for the overall lean implementation, leaders will work through their own resistance as they plan and manage the learning process for others in the organization.


There is no substitute for excellent lean technical solutions. Value-stream analysis, physical isolation of value streams with focused layouts, fast setups, load balancing, performance to takt time, small lot production, and the other lean tools are all important.

Experience suggests, however, that where people must interface the technical solution in a significant way, lean technology will not stand alone. We have to manage change. And to manage change, we have to manage a learning process. Focused education and training—first for the management-steering team and then for other implementation teams—will make the difference between success and failure.