Trimming the Fat Is Hard

by Jerry Fulkerson

Well, it’s not exactly as bad as that meme describes but, if surveys are to be believed, the success rate is pretty low for Lean implementations.  In a recent article on i Six Sigma they offered a failure rate of 50%-95%.   Given the difficulty of getting an accurate answer to the question, “Is your Lean program successful?” tightening that reported range any further isn’t likely.  But, it doesn’t have to be.  It’s enough to say that a large number of lean initiatives either wither and drop away or become relegated to a status of “make work”.  The real question is…why?

Let me say up front that I am not a Lean professional.  I’ve been trained in Lean philosophies and practices twice.  The first time was in the early 2000s when I worked for a Fortune 100 company.  They had just completed a successful roll out of Six Sigma and followed that up with their version of the Toyota Production System.  After moving on several years later,  I spent a number of years working for companies that toyed with Lean without truly making a commitment to it.  That ended two years ago when I had the opportunity to join a company that, while early in its lean journey, had a major commitment to making Lean part of their company philosophy.  It felt good to scrape the rust off of my skills.  It’s too early to say for sure, but my guess is that they’ll be one of the success stories.

So, despite my training, I’m not a Lean professional; I’m a lean practitioner.  That, and having worked for companies whose Lean programs both succeeded and failed, gives me a different, more focused perspective on the reasons Lean fails.  If you google Lean failures, you’ll find many articles on the subject and each one will offer a variety of failure modes.  Those explanations range from “misunderstanding what Lean is” to “starting the process without a strategy” to “a lack of customer focus.”  These and a dozen other causes are certainly part of the problem. However a lean program can still survive and progress if some of those shortcomings are present, albeit at a slower pace.  But from a user standpoint, I think that there are five mistakes that can be made which can drop a Lean program with a single shot.

  • Not building the foundation first – Any kind of a program has to be built on a solid, dependable foundation. In Lean, that foundation is built with Total Productive Maintenance and 5S.  A robust and functioning TPM program will ensure that the machinery is available when needed.  A robust and functioning 5S program will ensure that the people doing the work are dependable.  Beyond the benefits that 5S provides on its own, it helps people develop the self-discipline to follow standards.  If a Lean initiative isn’t started with sound TPM and 5S programs then it will not succeed.  Sooner or later, either the people or machinery will fail and all of the other improvements that are made will fail with them.
  • Top level commitment – Lean can’t be driven from the middle. It has to be supported from the top down and implemented from the bottom up.  Too many executives want to transform their organization into Lean, so they assign a manager or director and then scratch Lean off of their “to do” list.  That won’t work.  If leaders want their company to be successful with Lean, they have to be as trained, committed and involved as everyone else in the company.  If they aren’t, not only will it send the wrong signal to the masses, it virtually ensures that obstacles that need to be removed for success won’t be.
  • Complete employee involvement – There also has to be a realization that many of the best ideas are going to be found and the best implementations are going to be done by the workers on the front line. These are the people who see the waste and fight the problems every day.  But, change can be frightening.  If the workers on the floor don’t understand why changes are being made and how those changes can help the process and improve their work lives, then they won’t buy in.  Without that, any change is doomed to failure.  So, how is the buy in accomplished?

First, everybody needs trained, at least in the basics.  I know, that can’t be done overnight, but it is possible to put together a plan and make sure that the first class taught has a couple of folks from the production floor in it.  The goal isn’t to make everyone a statistician or Lean Sensei, but if everyone knows what a Muda walk, spaghetti diagram or PDCA project is and why they are used then there is a better chance of avoiding resistance.

Second, make sure the teams are built in a cross functional and cross level manner.  Let everyone help define the problems, gather the data, contribute to the fishbone diagram, ask the five whys and test the solutions.  Let everyone have a turn leading a team.  If the workers own the solution then they will move heaven and earth to make it work.  If they don’t, it doesn’t have a chance.

  • Narrow project focus – Executives and managers tend to have preconceptions about where their problems lie. They might feel that the inventory is out of control or rejection rates are too high.  They are probably right, inventory and scrap rates are critical areas but they are also very likely to be the most difficult to control, requiring the most resources in the form of time and capital to resolve.  While working on the big problems, why not let teams simultaneously work on smaller ones in areas of their choosing?  Solving them will not only give them a sense of satisfaction and confidence, but they might stumble onto a lower visibility problem that begs for resolution and yields significant savings. It’s the serendipity principle.
  • Unreasonable expectations- This dovetails into the last point. Leaders often  have an expectation that, given the commitment they are making to a program, every project should be a touchdown that adds points to the scoreboard.  Life isn’t like that and neither is running a business.  That’s true whether the business is in manufacturing, health care, retail sales, or anything else.  It’s nice to drop back and make a sixty yard touchdown pass but, more often than not, it’s grinding out two or three yards per play on the ground that wins the game.  When someone comes with a project that is unlikely to have a huge impact, instead of telling them to go find something bigger, let them try.  Even if all they get is that three yards, it’s still an improvement.  More importantly, it will let them hone their skills so that when they’re needed for the big projects they’ll be ready.  It also doesn’t hurt that, as they work on smaller projects, they’ll be spreading the word about Lean.

Even though I’m just a shop rat engineer, I’m fairly certain that a Lean Sensei won’t have major heartburn about anything I’ve said.  I’m also fairy certain that they could and would change the priorities and add other failure modes to the list.  If any Lean Champions are reading, feel free to contribute in the comment section.  I look forward to your input.

See ya

Next time – Cermet and carbide cutting tools – when to use which.


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