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Blog Author:
Richard Eaton
Adventurer. Process whisperer. Force of nature.
Richard Eaton is the co-founder of Berlineaton, a management consulting company based in Victoria and serving the world. For more information about Richard and Berlineaton, please visit berlineaton.com. Berlineaton is qualified through LeanBC to deliver process improvement projects with the BC Public service. See our media release here.
What are the Secrets Behind Successful Lean Projects
“Implementing Lean concepts and principles is not a technological issue. It is primarily a management and human resource issue.”

– Kenneth E. Kirby, Department of Industrial Engineering, University of Tennessee

Since 1996, Berlineaton has partnered with thousands of people to help them improve the effectiveness of hundreds of organizations: big, small, new, old, public, private and non-profit sector. We've also recently been recognized for this long term success through being qualified by LeanBC to deliver Continuous Improvement Lean projects for the BC Public Sector. If there are two things we’ve learned over the past 20 years or so it's:
  1. most people, in most organizations, simply hate frustrating processes (as do their customers/ clients and stakeholders), and;
  2. unless done right, people will extend similar feelings to anyone who tries to implement a process improvement project whether they be bosses, peers or consultants
Lean is a globally recognized cure for process frustration. Its roots are firmly planted in the work of world renowned statistician Dr. W. Edwards Deming and the Japanese Quality revolution of the 20th Century. Predictably, some experiences have been more successful than others and, after 20 years, Berlineaton has developed a pretty good idea as to what works well, and what doesn’t. But we wondered about what others have learned too.

What are the secrets behind successful Lean projects?

To help us answer that question, we scanned the Lean space and found an enormous amount of information about major Lean initiatives delivered by a wide variety of public and private sector organizations around the world, such as the BC Ministry of Health, Toyota Motor Corporation, and Royal Dutch Shell. What we found surprised us:

Up to 70% of Lean initiatives fail to provide sustained results.

Why?

Let’s look at what we discovered, but first I should describe the process (see what I did there?) we used to arrive at our conclusions:

  • Step 1: We reviewed 20 sources of information regarding Lean initiatives, searching for lessons learned and other reasons cited for success or failure. These were mainly big reports written about major initiatives, many pf them clearly costing millions of dollars and involving thousands of people
  • Step 2: We looked for common themes across these many lessons learned. We discovered 15 themes
  • Step 3: We aligned each of the 15 themes into one of the three dimensions of organizational effectiveness underscoring Berlineaton’s approach to organizational effectiveness:  Directio n, Process and People.          
  • Step 4: We compared these results with what we have learned as management consultants over past 20 years, working with thousands of people striving to make their organizations more effective, to see how well they line up, and what conclusions we could draw, if any
So let’s take a look at what we’ve discovered so far. Spoiler alert - it’s mainly about People stuff:

Direction

Direction includes the vision, goals, strategies, and tactics that propel an organization towards its purpose. Direction gives meaning to action and translates activity into progress. We found five themes that relate to this dimension of organizational effectiveness as follows:
  • Visible Senior Leadership commitment through words and action
  • Ensure improvements are fully detailed and documented
  • Provide the resources needed to improve the process
  • Provide explicit targets and expectations, and provide feedback
  • Invest in, and commit to, a single methodology
From this we can assume that you have a good chance of being successful with Lean when you have a strong commitment from senior leaders, enough of the right resources, clear targets and expectations, and a sound methodology while paying attention to the details inherent in any complex improvement focused project.

Process

Process includes the day-to-day tasks and deliverables that yield their best results when work steps are clear and strong, and aligned with organizational objectives. Effective processes turn direction into action. We grouped the following two themes under Process:
  • Use data to guide improvements
  • Carefully align the incentives within your company
From this we can assume that success with Lean in the dimension of process relates to paying attention to what the data is telling you, while ensuring alignment with various corporate imperatives.

People

People.Organizations will be more effective where they ensure that people have the skills, capability, and impetus to translate strategic intent into reality. People and the culture they create drive the future of an organization. We grouped the following eight themes under People:
  • Build trust by removing fear
  • Initiate long-term cultural change
  • Communicate the vision to all stakeholders
  • Be certain that staff benefit from the new process and that it has no adverse impact on them
  • Make sure that people are aligned
  • Establish ongoing communication
  • Expect resistance and failures
  • Measure change management and hold people accountable
From this we can assume that success with Lean in the dimension of People relates to many of the things that can be described as a good change leadership experience including a trust based work environment, focusing on longer term culture shift, transparent expectations and accountabilities, and effectively engaging everyone - in some way - to try new approaches within the context of a learning culture that could be described as ‘safe to fail’ as opposed to ‘fail safe’.

Most importantly we discovered that, when done well, Lean is not ‘Process’ improvement methodology but a ‘People’ leadership methodology.

‘People’ considerations outnumbered Direction and Process combined, representing 47% of the total number of themes we identified. ‘Process’, the core reason for the existence of Lean in the first place only has two themes: only 12% of the total. This squares precisely with our many years of experience as management consultants helping clients achieve their improvement goals. Good leadership and a strong adherence to sound people and change leadership practises, Continuous Improvement, will always achieve better results in Lean, or any other kind of, improvement effort.

So when leading a Lean initiative, remember, although the direction you provide and processes you redesign are important too, it’s really all about the people involved. Ignore Continuous Improvement and your ‘Lean Dreams’ will, more likely than not, become a type of nightmare.
Take a Free Assessment
Will your organization exist five years from now?
Organizations that thrive excel in three areas: 

  • Direction: a clear, widely shared, and aspirational vision of the future and a compelling road map to get there.
  • Process: clear, effective and efficient steps that create meaningful outputs. Daily tasks and deliverables yield their best results when processes are clear and strong, and aligned with organizational objectives. Processes facilitate the alignment of action with direction.
  • People: People make it all happen. People have the skills, capacity, and impetus to translate strategic intent into reality. Ultimately, people and the culture they create drive an organization towards its chosen future. 
Where does your organization stand right now? Take a few minutes to complete our free assessment and find out. Click on the button below to launch the assessment.