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Home > About Us > News and Articles > The Top Ten Secrets of Lean Success


By David Dixon (as printed in Fabricating and Metalworking)
I When we are in early discussions with a client company interested in launching a lean initiative, two questions inevitably emerge: "What are the pitfalls or barriers to success?" and, of course, "How can we avoid them?" After 24 years of participating in the lean transformation process with hundreds of companies, we finally think we have some answers.

With apologies to Letterman, we thought it would be useful to summarize this wisdom in the form of a "Top Ten" list.

Our "Top Ten" is addressed to the senior management of the company, as they are the ones who must be influenced and guided by the principles embedded in the list. This month, we feature the first six while next month we will cover the remaining four principles that should guide each and every lean initiative.

No. 1. Manage the lean Implementation Top Down.

It is absolutely necessary that senior management people acquire a good understanding of lean principles and practices. They must understand in a technical sense how lean tools work together to bring about better performance and customer service. Only then will they see the deficiencies in the current state and be able to envision a greatly improved future state.

With this future-state vision, leadership can communicate to the organization a "burning platform for change" and create plans for using lean techniques to close the gap between the current- and future-state situations.

No. 2. Quickly Drive lean Benefits to the Bottom Line.

Select early improvement projects that focus on market-driven imperatives and critical cost drivers. Lean represents a powerful set of problem-solving weapons, so why not deploy them on the company's major heartburn? Use a combination of value-stream maps and the strategic goals of the business to identify the highest leverage opportunities, then design and execute improvement projects (kaizen events and process re-engineering efforts) that result in significant waste and cost reduction. Avoid a "shotgun" approach characterized by many easy, low-risk projects. The results won't get anyone's attention.

Don't forget to set improvement targets and measure performance at the cell or departmental level. This is where we get a grip on the parameters that drive excessive cost and lead time.

No. 3. Organize for Success.

To quote Jim Collins, you will first need to "get the right people on the bus and put them in the right seats." There is no substitute for a dedicated, high-energy management team with a commitment to excellence. They can learn about lean, Six Sigma and other improvement tools, but it is hard to overcome an absence of talent and personal motivation.

Even with a fundamentally sound management team, you may also need outside resources. The team may lack knowledge about lean tools and how to implement them, and they often "don't know what they don't know." Don't flounder! Bring in a Sensei to guide you through the journey. Position your consultant as a member of a lean-business steering team. See to it that the steering team meets frequently and that it is focused exclusively on a continuous-improvement agenda. Above all, do not reduce the lean program to a line item on a routine staff meeting agenda. It is the kiss of death for the lean effort.

You will also want to find and develop one or more lean coordinators to administer and support the effort. They will provide the link between the steering team and the many kaizen events and projects that you will carry out over time. Be careful that the coordinator is postured as a resource and not the "owner" of the lean implementation effort. Ownership must rest with the steering team and those who own your business processes.

No. 4. Train, Train, Train!

Everyone will not love lean. Be prepared to deal with resistance to change, and know that we cannot manage resistance; but we can manage a learning process that will mitigate that resistance and allow us to enjoy the benefits of lean. Begin with high level lean "boot camp" training for leaders. Follow up very early on with boot camp experiences for everyone, especially for grass-roots, operative employees. Use each project or kaizen event as an opportunity to teach the technical details of lean and other improvement tools. Be sure to teach the "why" as well as the "how."

In parallel with the lean training, shore up your core competency with job skills training as a bulwark against poor quality and productivity. Cross train as needed to provide worker flexibility for line or load balancing.

Test for competency in lean, basic job skills and cross-trained capabilities. Certify employees as a means of quality assurance and recognition.

No. 5. Run Extraordinary Kaizen Events.

You will become a world-class performer one project or kaizen event at a time, so develop in-house resources who know how to structure and facilitate a great kaizen event. This is a challenging art form that must not be taken lightly. Here again, an outside resource person with a demonstrated ability to set up and run effective events should be engaged to help in developing in-house people.

Especially in the early going, use the report-outs at the conclusion of kaizen events to recognize the efforts of your people and to educate the management team. Good report-outs will provide management team members with a deeper technical understanding of lean. Properly done, these sessions will also help leaders better appreciate the power of engaging the entire work force in the improvement process.

No. 6. Get the Layout Right.

You will have identified your discrete value streams early in the lean implementation process. It is within these value streams that we apply lean tools to reduce lot sizes, lead time, inventory and cost. One vital step toward excellence is the co-location of process elements in the value stream, which is a layout issue. Until we physically isolate the value streams, we are quite limited in our ability to remove waste. On the other hand, when we have "shuffled the furniture" to create cells and focused factories, we have set the stage for major waste reduction. We can now foster a lean culture characterized by an abiding commitment to continuous improvement.