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July 30, 2013

The “Standard Lean Approach” – An Oxymoron

[The consultants] “mapped processes, timed processes with stopwatches, pored over data and developed a set of recommended changes. … Within nine months the changes had been made and 30 per cent productivity improvements were booked – many people had lost their jobs. Throughput was improved, so more products reached customers on time, although quality problems continued. … The environment became regimented, almost like a police state, but there were improvements on all key metrics. Management was won over by the power of the lean methodology. … Along with low employee morale, customers remained unhappy with the quality of the panels [products]”.


From “The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement”

Jeff Liker and James Franz 2011


I don’t know anything about the company referred to in this quote, but it describes, virtually word for word, a company I spent time with a while ago. The company was determined it wanted a “standard”, step-by-step, approach to implementing “lean”. It was an approach they described on several occasions as “an idiot’s guide”, and it was intended that staff that had been through a one week “lean awareness” course could pick up the guide and implement it. Tick the boxes and you’re lean! The measures of success for their lean implementation were cost-reduction (i.e. headcount) and productivity. Sadly, neither of these are measures which are well suited to promoting lean behaviour.


The trouble is that lean does not deliver a standardised solution for every eventuality. Lean is a philosophy, a mind-set, – an approach to problem-solving and improvement – not a standardised solution. And yet, many large corporations, supported and encouraged by large consultancies, are going down the route of the standardised approach.


But what is the alternative for these businesses? They have many thousands of staff based, quite possibly, at hundreds of locations. They can’t let lean thinking develop randomly across the organisation: they need a structured approach and that implies a standardised methodology. That way control of the process is maintained and locations work to a common roadmap so their position can be charted (and audited), and results can be collected against a common template (usually with standard “targets” at each step).


The key to sustainable success in lean, as argued in “The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement”, and many other books, is people development – intensive (and long term) development of people in problem solving and process improvement skills. With these skills well embedded, and managers facilitating and supporting such activity, the organisation will improve. But large organisations want a return on investment – and quickly – and this may not be compatible with the slow process of culture change.


I’d be interested in other people’s views on this dilemma.