Five Reasons Lean Won’t Work For Your Company

There are a multitude of excellent reasons for manufacturers to implement lean production practices, and business leaders are often enticed to go down the path of continuous improvement. However, that doesn’t mean that lean manufacturing will work in every company. It can have huge benefits, but you need to have the right mindset. In my career in manufacturing, I learned firsthand why they call it continuous improvement: very seldom do you get everything right the first time.

Is your business ready to build a lean culture? Here’s a list of five reasons that lean may not work for your company. You will need to address each of them if you want to embrace continuous improvement in your manufacturing process.

Lean isn’t for you if:

  1. You think lean is just a set of tools that can be trained.
    This way of thinking is how lean – and really any improvement initiative – gets labeled as The Flavor Of The Week by employees. Training is important, but the knowledge and efforts are not sustainable without a supporting culture. If you aren’t ready to build a lean culture, then you are going to watch your efforts (as well as your training budget) go down the proverbial drain. That’s not to say that you won’t see some improvement, but it may be just enough to leave a bad taste in your team’s mouth. “Yeah, we tried that lean thing and just like the last thing we tried, it didn’t make much difference.” The late management guru, Peter Drucker, is attributed with saying “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The greatest lean strategy in the world will not survive a culture that is not aligned with it.
  2. You think lean can be delegated.
    Lean is dead on arrival without hands-on support and dedication that starts with the top brass. Consultants can be very helpful with the education and implementation, but they cannot replace the commitment that is needed within the organization. When it’s there, lean will thrive. When it’s not, you can see it and feel it – momentum is lost, trust is eroded and everyone goes back to the old way of doing things. In the early period of my 20+ years in aerospace manufacturing our president had a expression that he lived by, and it was simply this: Every hand fits a broom. Be humble and get involved.
  3. You won’t deal with employees who dig in their heels.
    With change comes resistance and building a lean culture will wake up the naysayers for sure. Not only do they resist, they will try to influence others to do the same. They are sometimes called CAVE People which means Citizens Against Virtually Everything. I was first introduced to this term by Sam – a lean facilitator from Enterprise MN (read more abut CAVE People in this Forbes article). As a leader, you need to be willing and able to explain why you are embracing lean and develop a strategy to deal with resistance. The benefit of CAVE People is that if you can turn them around, they often become the biggest proponents of the change. Some won’t change, though, and this is a fork in the road for leadership to show how committed they are to building a lean culture.
  4. You won’t listen to employees’ ideas.
    The best improvements will come from those who are directly involved in the process. How you solicit and respond to ideas will directly impact your success. The sad (but common) response of “we’ve always done it this way” should be addressed as “we’ve always done it this way, but tell me how we can do it better.” Forcing employees to go through a five-step approval process to get their ideas implemented will stifle engagement and erode trust. I’m not in favor of at-will changes to established standards, but continuous improvement is exactly that – continuous. It takes time to build a culture of trust so that employees are willing to make suggestions, knowing that they will be respected even if their improvement is not implemented.
  5. You don’t think there’s waste in your processes.
    This is tongue-in-cheek because we all have waste in our processes. From the time we wake up in the morning until we fall asleep, if we analyze what we do throughout our day (or if someone else did) there would be waste. Organizations are no different, but pride can get in the way of seeing it and being willing to do something about it. Lean is all about getting rid of waste, especially unnecessary waste. Be relentless about it. Encourage and recognize those who are passionate about seeing and removing waste. 

A thriving lean culture is more about mindset than it is about mandate. The attitudes and beliefs of leaders chart the course toward success or mediocrity. Change your mindset and the benefits of a lean culture will follow. Your employees are watching, and I’d venture to guess that most of them want to improve and contribute. Why not give them the opportunity to do so?