5 Seemingly Innocent Questions You Never Want to Hear in a Lean Deployment

These are 5 seemingly innocent questions which in fact you never want to hear in a lean deployment. If you do hear them this does not mean your efforts are doomed, only that the thinking behind what is lean and why we are doing it may be off the mark or unaligned between people.
1. How many people do we need to train in lean? The opposite of this is a better question: how many people should we leave in the dark? This is the participation question you will need to answer: how will we get everyone exposed and educated to a basic level of awareness as soon as possible? Total involvement is of course the standard for a lean culture. The practical approach is to use a variety of communication and education methods to target everyone’s learning styles and availability, begin early and never stop.
2. How many people do we need in our lean promotion office? This is a very common question, and one the industry of lean service providers are only too eager to give expert answers. The bare minimum consensus is that as with any discipline an organization serious about developing expertise in lean should no doubt have at least one person making it their full time job to promote it. Yet this is a question of how you choose to practice lean. Lean deployment should not be driven by the lean promotion office any more than safety should be the chief concern of the safety department, or customer service is the concern of the customer service department. A better question is “what type of experts will we need?” and “who needs to be actively supporting the lean deployment on a daily basis for it to succeed?” The answers to these questions raise more questions and will force organizations to step away from the expectation that the lean promotion office will lead the lean deployment.
3. Should we do lean before we do __? Should we practice good management before or after we implement a new ERP system? Should we respect and engage our people in continuous improvement before or after we send off a group to a class to get certified? Odd questions, all. The first step in lean deployment is to have a strong need to do it. This means first clarifying the problem (gap between target and actual) and then taking steps necessary to address root causes of the gap. This question most often reflects the perspective that lean is another system to implement before shifting attention to another burning issue. If you wait for the right time to get started with lean, you will never do it. It is always an inconvenient time. But there is always something you can do to get started now, if you have the will.
4. When will the lean deployment be complete? Variations of this include “What’s next after lean?” or “How do we know when we are lean?” This reflects the misconception that you can be “certified” as lean, or win a prize and be “lean”. No amount of buzzword bingo, arranging processes into textbook configurations or polishing the floors to a certain level of sheen will make you lean. The closer you get, the further away you realize you are. Waste is everywhere and we will never get rid of all of it. The target can always be higher and the ideal is whatever perfection a human mind can dream up. In perpetuity is how long we need to pursue perfection, so lean deployment means leaving behind an operating system that teaches every new person in the organization how to deploy lean in their work today.
5. Where else can we try apply lean? This may seem to be a good sign of interest in lean from areas beyond the original scope of lean deployment. However if lean is not understood to be an pervasive way of working instead of a set of operational improvement tools originating in manufacturing, the lean deployment is likely to struggle. The whole system must be considered as part of the scope of lean deployment and no area should be off-limits to the creative application of people’s minds in getting rid of waste and serving customers better. “We can’t do lean everywhere at once” is a common objection and a reason for doing lean manufacturing first, lean supply chain next, then lean office and then lean design, for example. This is usually a question of competency (knowing how to put lean into practice in these areas – see 2 above) or not having a shared understanding and awareness of what lean is all about (often due to a lack of total participation – see 1 above) in the early stage of communication and education. And as with 3 above, if you wait for the right time it may never be the right time to “expand lean beyond manufacturing.”
How can we prevent these questions and be better prepared for a successful lean deployment? Putting a clear picture in people’s minds of what is expected in such a way to build a positive tension will result in good things. Nineteenth century American educational reformer Horace Mann said, “A teacher who is attempting to teach, without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn, is hammering on a cold iron.” Lean deployment is about learning a different and better way of working. Whether by the friction of rubbing old ideas against the new or by the fire of a leader’s passion, the cold iron of our current ways of thinking need to be heated before they can be worked into a more fit form.