Is ‘Lean’ Now Taboo in the Workplace?

Have you noticed that people are now talking about Agile and Innovation when they used to be talking about Lean and Six Sigma? This is more than just a change in fashions; did you know that ‘Lean’ has now become taboo in many workplaces.

Recently BIG Change Agency were invited to chair and present at National Manufacturing Week in Melbourne. What we found out startled us!  We spoke to hundreds of people over the 4 days and found that most of those who had been part of a lean initiative in their workplace had found it to be a terrible experience. More surprising was the fact that this view was shared by visitors at all levels; front line workers and senior managers alike.

Many of the Lean implementations completed over the past 5-10 years have not only failed to deliver the required increase in productivity to Australian manufacturing but have also damaged the ability of those businesses to improve their culture and introduce further improvement initiatives in the future. “We’ve tried that before” is now the common response to business leaders looking to improve their operations.

The common element to all the failed lean implementation programs that we have seen is flawed reasoning behind Why the program was started in the first place. The availability of ‘free’ training in the form of Cert 3 and Cert 4 competitive manufacturing qualifications has led to business leaders “giving lean a go” in a financially risk free environment. With the business then having little skin in the game there was often no need to fully support the program or its success from a senior level.

There are of course many success stories. These stories all share the fact that the implementation was not driven by a need for cost reduction, nor were internal qualifications and government funding important. Instead the focus was all about a change in mindset and development of an empowered workforce; everybody working to improve the business in any way possible.

It is clear now that across the Australian workforce the true meaning of Lean has been lost! It is now synonymous only with cost reduction, class room lessons and trainers visiting once a month. There is little understanding left of the values and culture of improvement that Lean principles fostered within Toyota and other best in-class operations. It is also apparent that what business leaders are really asking for when they ask for Lean is for them to create a Culture of Continuous Improvement.

If your business is in an improvement program that is not delivering the intended benefit, it is likely that not only are your Managers and Supervisors frustrated at the lack of operational improvement but also your front line employees are becoming more and more disengaged with the business at all levels. In this situation, I implore you to STOP!! Ask yourself if your people are on board before it is too late.

“Let me tell you about the law of holes: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Will Rogers

Righting the wrongs

Recognising that you are not where you want to be is a brave first step on the road to improvement and the following tips will help you to accelerate the process.

1. Understand that empowered workers are the key to success

Lean, Six sigma, Agile, Innovation; surely they can’t all be the best ? The truth is that the tool or method that is adopted means very little. The real power within any business lays in having a group of people who are determined to make things better.

Creating a Culture of Continuous improvement starts with the knowledge that mindset and not tools are the key to ongoing success.

John Bell, Ex-Executive Program Manager (a Chief Engineer role at Toyota Australia) explains that when implemented well “lean is not about the tools and processes but has at its core a common understanding across all employees that they must strive to deliver the product corporate objectives and make every day better than yesterday”.

2. Go back to the beginning

When we visit businesses that are struggling with improvement projects it is always the case that while the leadership team has a clear vision and plan as to what is required to happen, this vision has either not been communicated to all employees or where it has, it has been done so in a language that is not clearly understood.

What’s in It For Me (WIIFM) is an acronym usually discussed with negative connotations, however the importance of the principle cannot be overlooked. When communicating the vision of an improvement project leaders must be able to clearly articulate the benefits of what is happening to everyone regardless of position and title.

Only when each individual employee can understand the benefits that they will see will you start to Create a Culture of Continuous Improvement.

3. Remove everything that is not working

Any tool that has been brought into the business without the users being fully engaged is now tainted with a bad experience.

Fresh approach needs fresh representation. This step is as much one of symbolism of casting out the old as anything else. Remove old boards and communications.

4. Concentrate on the objective not the method

A Culture of Continuous Improvement is one where people understand what is required of each contributor. Then to decide which tool to use at which time. Critical to the success of such a culture is to first identify the direction, where there is a problem and to decide which tool to apply. This in contrast to the traditional training sequence of learning a tool and trying to find a problem to apply it to.

5. Don’t be afraid to empower your people

Your people will surprise you! Front line staff who you think are trouble makers or are disengaged are amongst those most likely to take the lead when given the ability to make positive change. In our experience the poor attitude that you are familiar with has been cultivated in a culture that prevents these employees from contributing as much as they know they can.

So, what does the future look like for you?

If you are a business where continuous improvement is a way of life then the future is yours to make. With competition from all areas of the globe, local businesses employing a Culture of Continuous Improvement are flying the ‘Made in Australia’ flag loud and proud.

If, however you are in a business where the entire workforce is not working together to improve daily then the future likely looks bleak unless you make a change to Create a Culture of Continuous Improvement.


1 Comment
  1. Roger McInerney 3 years ago

    Good Article! The road to the present moment is littered with ‘fads’, AKA eminently sound methodologies (like TQM), all of which could positively transform any workplace if done with the correct intention, attention and skill. In some ways that’s great for consultants who simply sigh and then attempt to assist the client with the ‘next big thing. However, in the end, it’s all counter productive and morale sapping. Most methodologies will work if the leaders think through their intent, anticipate the core issues and apply a mixture of tenacity and sensitive leadership.

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