Making the lean transformation

10 tips to lead the way

June 25, 2012   by Richard Kunst

Manufacturers are bombarded with information about lean, yet there is very little practical information on how to implement a transformation and lead the change. Every company’s journey starts under different circumstances, so there is no one recipe or “right way,” but there are many factors to consider before starting the trip.

Based on the successful and not so successful experiences of others, here are 10 lessons that will lead you to a sustainable lean transformation:

1. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Lean is not a one- or two-quarter commitment. It takes one to two years to build the necessary momentum, and from there your journey will last forever. Yes, tools such as kaizens provide very quick and significant improvements, but without taking the time to implement a program that yields sustainable benefits, process improvements gained by applying lean tools will slowly deteriorate and soon you will be back to where you started. The most profitable returns are realized through a two- to five-year plan.

2. It’s not a part-time job. Don’t expect someone to lead the charge in his/her spare time. You need to assign a dedicated leader or team to take on this challenge. It requires daily attention from leaders who fully understand the scope of the project and who won’t get caught up in today’s distractions. These leaders also require continued support from management throughout the implementation.

3. You need leaders, not managers. Managing is maintaining current reality. Leadership is moving people towards the ideal state. And you can’t lead people to where they already are. Lean transformation is about leadership, but it’s not a position or rank. Look for people at every level of the enterprise capable of leading. If lean is about transforming how people think, you must be able to teach.

4. Tools are good, but there’s more to it. Tools focus on physical system changes, but that’s not where the heart of lean beats. Lean thinking must become part of every person in your organization. Sustainable lean change – the kind that builds momentum – comes from the hearts and minds of all employees.

5. The journey never ends. There is a tendency for companies to declare, “We’ve done it. We’ve achieved lean.” The truth is, lean is a never-ending process because there will always be a gap between where you are and your ideal state. Even when success has been achieved, don’t stop. Consider Toyota – no matter how much better it is than the competition, the automaker continues to find more opportunities to improve each year.

6. Be prepared for resistance. When change is proposed, people often feel threatened. Some will think it’s something they did, but most will just be uncomfortable with the unknown. Also, many people think lean means cutting staff, when it’s really about working smarter to preserve heads and even grow the workforce as the market grows. As your company embarks on this journey, you must help people understand why, what and how. Remove the fears – or make NOT moving forward the more fearful choice.

7. Invest in people and time. People will need to learn new skills. This means experimenting with every process everyday to get it right. There is also a financial investment, mostly in training, but also in process changes. However, the evidence is clear that the payback for this period is in months, not years. You can use focused-improvement tools such as kaizens to get immediate gains and pay for your investment. The potential difference between lean and non-lean companies is not 5% to 10%, it’s 100% to 1,000% differences in quality, cost, delivery and, of course, profit.

8. More than the shop floor. Taiichi Ohno, one of the fathers of the Toyota Production System, said decades ago it’s not just a production system. If you reduce your lead time in manufacturing by 90% and get product out in hours but order entry takes four weeks, you aren’t really moving forward. You must attack every corner of the business from accounting and human resources to manufacturing.

9. There’s no recipe, but there is a roadmap. A recipe tells you exactly how to do something – the amounts, sequence and timing. There is no such recipe for lean success since every company starts with a different set of ingredients. However, there is a roadmap. Guide posts along the way help you determine where you are and how to get there.

10. Don’t just copy the answers. Many people have tried to succeed at lean by copying the solutions that Toyota or others have found, either through benchmarking or out of a book – like a kid copying someone else’s test only to find out they were taking a different exam. Your company will likely have some unique problems and constraints; you must engrain lean thinking in your organization and find your own answers.

Never stop collecting lessons as you travel the path to lean. It’s a long journey that will require reflection upon each and every one of them.

Richard Kunst is president and CEO of Kunst Solutions Corp., which publishes the “Lean Thoughts” e-newsletter.

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This article appears in the May/June 2012 edition of PLANT.

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