How to Judge the Success of Lean?

Lean is a journey and to my mind the best way of judging success is by how much people have learnt so far and how ready they are to take the next leg of the journey.

I often meet people who tell me that “Lean has changed their lives”. While this certainly makes writing books worthwhile it also presents an opportunity to ask some probing questions. Can they show me how lean has changed the way they work with their colleagues and the things they are working on? Are they for instance really working together in teams, defining their own standard work, visualising progress against the plan and solving problems that prevent them doing the right things for customers and their organisation? This tells me a lot more than how many training courses or Kaizen weeks they have done.

I then ask them to show me whether lean has enabled them to change the way the work flow or value stream that they are part of is run. Has lean helped them to create stability where there was chaos, to level the work and to allow it to flow in line with customer demand? Indeed are they clear who their immediate and final customers are and can they distinguish real from created demand? From their answers and looking at their value stream maps it soon becomes clear how much of their end-to-end value stream they can see, particularly beyond their own area, facility, department or organisation. It is also easy to see whether the underlying logic has fundamentally changed – from batch to flow and from push to pull etc.

The next step is to ask whether they have managed to join up all the lean improvements along their value stream and deliver significant results for customers in terms of quality, delivery and cost and for the business in terms of freed up cash, greater productivity and growing sales, while saving or forestalling capital expenditure. Moreover have these results been recognised by senior management, because being able to demonstrate that a good process is the best way to get good results is essential to sustain support for lean from the top.

As we learn to practice the scientific method embodied in A3s I increasingly hear managers say that “Lean has changed the way I think”. I now start by asking what the problem is that I am trying to solve and how important it is that this, rather than many other problems, get solved.” Taking a look at their A3s shows you a lot about the thought process behind the stories their A3s are telling. The less polished – in pencil and rubber rather than PowerPoint – and the more visual – more pictures and less words – the deeper this thinking has taken root. Their portfolio of A3s also tells you the scope and level of the problems they have been able to tackle to date.

Then I ask managers to take me on a Gemba Walk of the areas they are responsible for to understand how deeply this thinking has spread and influenced decision making. Are the key targets, the progress of the work against plan and current problems visible and regularly reviewed on the Gemba, or are decisions still based on data reviewed in an office? Are escalation processes to respond quickly to problems clear and is everyone engaged in reviewing the progress of project A3s on a daily or weekly basis? Is management using A3s to translate higher level goals into actions and to create a dialogue between teams along the value stream and are they using these projects to mentor staff in using the scientific method?

I then ask whether this scientific approach to thinking has improved the productivity and effectiveness of management, particularly in the way they use their time. Can they really focus on the vital few actions that will make the biggest difference in meeting their goals while having the confidence to deselect the rest? Do they spend far less time in endless meetings and more time reviewing progress and projects on the Gemba? Has the greater stability in their processes freed up time spent fire-fighting that can now be used to lead and mentor improvement activities?

I am now beginning to hear managers say “Lean means we need to change the way we manage” . Yes it does! This is an important threshold when top management recognises that they have to lead their lean transformations and focus these new ways of working together and new ways of thinking on closing the key performance gaps that will make the biggest difference to the business and to their customers. Has the debate over the vital few gaps been visualised in an Oobeya room and turned into key projects and actions using strategy deployment? Have these key projects been resourced and the many other projects deselected?

This leads to the next important step which is giving someone the responsibility for leading these end-to-end projects to turn previously separately managed activities into an integrated work flow or value stream, including synchronising all the key support processes. Managing the relationship between this horizontal responsibility and the vertical authority over the resources necessary to accomplish this redesign is a new challenge. Is the organisation ready to embark on experiments to learn how to make this work?

The final challenge is to recognise that in the end lean is a line and not a staff responsibility and that lean knowledge is developed through involvement in successive controlled experiments – learning by doing – rather than through a standard training programme rolled out by experts from the centre or by outside consultants. A lean transformation is built through running clusters of controlled experiments, building knowledge through communities of practice and shared through recognition ceremonies and an intranet of project A3s. In my experience this “get to action quickly” approach not only generates faster results but also “turns on the lights” in peoples’ heads to own it and run with it over time, rather than survive another initiative from head quarters.

As we have seen the lean journey is about learning new ways of working together , learning new, scientific ways of thinking and learning new ways of managing organisations. The more you learn the more you discover there is to learn!