The “Lean Group” Syndrome

By Ron Pereira Updated on April 3rd, 2013

I had a recent discussion with a relative who works in a large Chicago based hospital.

As it turns out, this particular hospital is attempting to use lean to improve their processes.

During our discussion I could tell something wasn’t quite right. You see, my relative obviously knows I run a company focused on teaching others about lean so I’m guessing she didn’t want to hurt my feelings… as such she didn’t initially mention any ill feelings towards lean.

However, after a few more minutes she finally opened up.

The “Lean Group”

In fact, she went on to explain how the “lean group” normally comes into an area and tells everyone how things are going to work.

She even explained how the “lean group” recently made some changes that actually created an unsafe working environment since access to a particular door was blocked.

While my relative definitely seemed interested in making lean work… she was most definitely less than thrilled with the way their “lean group” was going about things.

I don’t blame her.

R.I.G. Teams Working in Isolation Aren’t Lean

You see, while I’m a BIG fan of having at least a few associates focused on driving lean throughout an organization… I’m NOT a proponent of a “group” focused on making changes for the organization.

I’ve seen this in the form of a so called “R.I.G” team which stood for Rapid Improvement Group. This team of around 5 people traveled about and attacked areas like rabid animals. I mean they really tore into waste.

But the problem with this RIG team was they never included the folks who worked in the area!

As such, when they moved on to conquer waste in another area the applause they heard was not for a job well done… instead it was for thank goodness they’re leaving!  The associates in the area actually resented this lean group since changes were made without their involvement.

The Lean Group is L.A.M.E

After hearing my relative’s description of how their “lean group” is going about things I politely explained that what they were doing is not lean.

In fact, I explained how what they were doing was in fact very L.A.M.E.

Kaizen is About People

The thing “lean groups” and RIG teams need to remember is that kaizen is as much about developing people as it is attacking waste.

In fact, without people development kaizen cannot and will not thrive long term.

So, again, while I’m definitely a big fan of having a group of people focused on driving lean… these people should be as focused on developing people by involving them and allowing the experts, or the people that do the work every day, come up with and implement the improvement ideas.

Do you agree?

That’s my two cents… what do you think? Do you agree that “lean groups” focused on nothing but waste reduction without people development is anti-lean? Or do you think it’s better than nothing?

  1. Tim McMahon

    October 18, 2010 - 4:52 pm

    I agree with you. I am not a big fan either. It is a really hard way to implement Lean and furthermore harder to sustain it. You really must involve everyone in the organization. It is too easy to delegate it to the “lean group” as you say and then all you get is someone elses cost reductions.

  2. Matt James

    October 19, 2010 - 7:12 am

    Also agree with Tim. I have seen what a “Lean Group” can do to a program and it is not pretty.

  3. MartiB

    October 19, 2010 - 7:28 am

    I totally agree with you and I’m part of a lean team. I can’t begin to have the in depth knowledge in every area of my company. Since I work in a service world and we are spread out over several states we typically run Lean events off-site. If we don’t have buy-in and participation from that functional area we don’t run the event. We are there to help them but we can’t do it without their expertise and intimate knowledge of the process. We may have a ‘great’ idea to eliminate waste in our eyes but we might not know an underlying negative impact it would have on the customer.

  4. Gary Wood

    October 19, 2010 - 7:37 am

    Involving the folks who actually perform the work is essential to the success of any change. Not only is it applicable to Lean, but my experience is that is essential to software (ERP) implementations/upgrades for example. Those companies that include users from the beginning and throughout the process are much more successful than those that have ‘teams’ of internal and/or external consultants.

  5. John Hunter

    October 19, 2010 - 7:52 am

    What they are doing is probably worse than nothing. However, I think (as you mention), a “lean group” can be a good way to transition but they must 1) respect people (in the lean meaning) and 2) focus on building organizational capacity. Having, for example a few experts that are very focused on lean and can be tapped by others in the organization I think is very useful.

    That group might well also serve as “change agents” which can make some people get mad at them. They can help push the organization to change. While it might be nice to think you can just show the wonderfulness that is lean thinking and everyone will immediately drop all their old habits and embrace lean thinking that often doesn’t happen 🙁 You might well have to push middle mangers (and others) outside their comfort zone. And you might well have to push people to really try this stuff and they have become so disheartened over the years by promises of new, better, ways to work. They just see this as one more lame pointy haired boss attempt and they may well not want to play.

  6. Jeremy Garner

    October 19, 2010 - 9:35 am

    I was recently part of a “lean team” at one of our sister companies. I enjoyed learning about new processes and helping solve problems. Without the team members who were involved in the process really understanding kaizen or it’s benefits, the improvements were very short lived. If you don’t take time to cultivate that understanding team members will quickly revert back to the familiar. Because we had rather do our work in a more familiar way that’s less productive, than to work in a way that is unfamiliar if the impact is unclear. Connecting with team members and helping them understand TPS/Kaizen is the greatest value that you can add!

  7. SteveH

    October 19, 2010 - 3:35 pm

    It goes both ways ! After an early Kaizen event, the process owner made comments like “when are you Lean guys going to implement the new process?” During our discussion it was pointed out that the reason we had members of his team in the event was to bring process knowledge…we eventually learned how to communicate better, how to empower the process people and how to hand-off from a Kaizen to a Process Owner. So a caution for start-ups – make sure the process folks know they own the process – now and forever !

  8. Mark Graban

    October 20, 2010 - 8:25 pm

    Lean needs to be about people improving their own work. An outside group that does the “seagull” thing is more L.A.M.E. than lean, I agree.

  9. Mark Welch

    October 21, 2010 - 6:52 am

    Where I work we used to have Rapid Improvement Teams/Events and the symptoms you describe are very much as we experienced. I think this is somewhat inherent when in “event mode.” Here is one thing we did to help alleviate that… A week before the event we’d take a piece of flpchart paper, put it up in the area we were going to be work on, and called it an “issues/ideas” sheet. Everyone in the area was welcome to give their thoughts prior to the event, however, since not everyone could participate on the actual event, their input was limited at that time. This is why I much prefer the direction we are moving toward now – ongoing improvement efforts with our maps, to-do lists, etc. posted right in the work area where everyone can see the status and contribute. We get better communication, participation, and ideas; and we’re not limited to 4 days.

    This is why I still refer to myself as a “recovering eventaholic.” After I’ve made it through my 12-step program I’ll share my complete experience.

  10. Ron Pereira

    October 21, 2010 - 7:07 am

    Hi Mark W, I am actually a huge fan of the “event.”

    Done right, in my opinion, it cannot be beaten. But the key point is the event “team” should be facilitated by a team leader and kaizen coach who realize that it is NOT their job to come up with the ideas, etc. Instead, the experts, or the people who do the work each and every day, should drive the improvements.

    With this said, I do like the flip chart approach and also agree with you that doing kaizen each and every day is very important.

  11. Mark Welch

    October 21, 2010 - 7:15 am

    I think that’s it, Ron. We just weren’t doing it right. The vast majority of the improvement effort took place during the event week and then it was just dropped – flat. Team members were exhausted and behind in their day to day work, so day to day kaizen was dropped as well. Events are very hard to do “right.” But I agree with you that when they are done right they can be very good. Whatever approach is used it has to be compatible with the culture of the organization. For us, events weren’t compatible.

  12. Len Egan

    October 22, 2010 - 7:11 am

    Like so many things the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

    First, to have continuous improvement the process owners really need to be involved, learn the principles, practices, philosophies, the techniques and tools (if they apply or can be adapted) and everything they can about lean, the Toyota way, etc. And they have to be totally involved in the implementation and recognize that they are the owners of the process and responsible for it. After all the outsider(s) aren’t going to be there forever, and certainly the outsiders aren’t going to actually run the process, so the process owners have to carry on and in fact make continuous improvement part of the way of life in the organization, department, etc. A good improvement today is not the end of the story. And you absolutely need sincere real support from the top not just the window dressing variety, which flinches when there is a bump in the road and there will be many. This cannot be the famous “project of the month” approach.
    But to think an outsider cannot contribute and contribute a lot to eliminating waste and improving a process is also false. Certainly you don’t merely come in as an outsider and without study and detailed observation, interviews of all those in the process, and all the rest and impose solutions without recognition of everything involved. You not only would likely make a mess but you would also have zero credibility which will absolutely ensure failure and also make certain that there will never be another attempt at lean or process improvement — a term I prefer as lean like so many of these new business approaches become almost cult-like in which there are the pure and the un-pure as determined by the “experts” who embrace a certain philosophy.
    But the approach of “education-only” and then only those in a process can improve it just isn’t right either. There are many things in fact that an outsider brings to the process — a fresh set of eyes to look at what really is value-adding and what is merely time- and cost-adding. How often does an individual in a process say “but you have to do that, or we have always done it that way, or they won’t let us change that. I don’t see how you can eliminate it”, especially if the individual’s job involves that step. The outsider also isn’t beholden in any way to the past — a piece of equipment that is still depreciating but doesn’t really add as much value as it does waste, replacing a task with proven technology that can eliminate tedious tasks in the process (but the process owners were not aware of because they were just working the process with no opportunity to see other businesses and places where such technology is used and can be adapted here), stepping on someone’s toes by suggesting a different approach than one developed by a boss or founder or employee in the group. Society and life are filled with examples where a combination of approaches work well, and I believe it is true as well here. In my experience, while the process owners must be absolutely integral to any improvement and continuum. process improvement is also a learned skill that as so many things gets better and better with practice and continuous learning, making mistakes and rectifying them and all the rest. And the more different processes you work in the better you become at improving any process — I often bring a concept from a totally different industry that changes everything in a totally different process here. I have frequently seen processes where only ideas from those in the process are implemented and there remained waste eveywhere — but the over-riding belief is that “you will only be successful if the internal group does it.” Think about the downside of the “internal-only” mantra — there are turf wars sometimes below the surface or personal interactions from the past that make group members suspicious of motives, there are individual ambitions versus group accomplishment, there are fears of offending a boss or colleague whose idea the practice or machine or procedure was, or there just isn’t the fresh observation and the questioning of why, why, why.
    The outsider has no such allegiances — only absolutely eliminating waste, improving employee involvement and satisfaction and safety, increasing throughput time, better service, no inventories if manufacturing, reducing errors and improving quality, and all the rest. Often I see the results of internal-only “lean” and while improvements were certainly made, too much waste was left. And too much time was spent on showing how bad the current process was and how the change is better — like the meticulous spaghetti charts of how many steps and space previously was used. I can recall cases where I got the employees together, after they had “done lean” and started to look at detail in every step in the whole process and was it truly improved as much as we could (but still not as improved as it would be tomorrow or the next day or the next day — facilitating far more improvement by looking at everything fresh). And then the “excuses” poured out –we didn’t want to offend the boss or a friend, we didn’t think that would be accepted, or someone said it wouldn’t work and I didn’t want to challenge them, or I had that idea but was afraid to mention it because I was new, and all the rest. When one is in a process, often they are shackled by many things including a reluctance at risk-taking that might rock the boat too much. But a lot was merely because I didn’t think of that. I always say that I know a lot about process improvement and have agreat deal of experience in it, bu I don’t know everything for sure and hopefully I will learn as much as they will, but also I make clear that I know nothing about their process — so in combination working together we are really going to improve things. I promise I will ask dumb questions and trust they will give me smart answers. As much as they will question my ideas, I will also poke at theirs. I will also want them to try something, but long enough to really evaluate it and improve it. Together then we will have a better, not final, result.
    I certainly don’t like the internal group than does the seagull approach but I do like the combination of the champion of lean who truly knows what’s possible if we really go after waste who works with the group, helps them learn and understand lean and challenges them to look at everything and what is possible. Would you respect a teacher who doesn’t challenge your ideas because you are the one who has to carry on so I need it to be only what you are willing to do? Is it wrong for a safety professional to come through and be observant and change things to make them safer for a group but still effective? If there are defects is it wrong for an outsider or certification person to say you need to look at this or that to bring correction and ensure the errort doesn’t re-occur? Can an engineer not bring a product change that makes it easier to work?
    Why in lean do we think that an outsider cannot contribute to elimination of waste? Why do we think only internally-generated ideas by the process owners are acceptable?
    Let’s be open-minded that even those outside a process can be very helpful in working with the team in making process. And let’s not automatically think that it’s disrespectful of the employee. Teams are always better than indiduals in addressing things and I fo one think that a team of an impartial observer but experienced person in implementing process improvement, working with and training the process owners with no rules about whose idea it is or was, is a dynamite combination. Because in the end the process owners begin to stand outside their processes themselves and observe with no past baggage. So bring in outsiders who are sincere and competent in looking at processes and who can educate but draw out better observing and a true result, even those from other departments who have done lean successfuly but doesn’t know this process. It can be a dynamite combination. Don’t be shackled by these current thinking restraints that only someone within a process can truly improve it. A good observer experienced in seeing waste and looking at alternatives and then facilitating the team to adapt them and improve them can truly make an impact — the team becomes better at improving there process because they learn nothing is sacred, everything is open, and leave nothing forgotten.

  13. Robert Drescher

    October 22, 2010 - 9:51 am


    You are right outsiders cause more problems than they create solutions. The role of LEAN experts is to teach people doing the work the tools to do a better job, than help them get started, once people get the hang of it, it is time for the expert to move on. By doing things this way you build an organization that can continue to improve daily. People often forget that some of the world’s greatest empire builders used this attitude, J.P. Morgan built US Steel, by working with his workers to steadily improve. He considered the people on the steel mill flour his best partners, and he advised businesses that he owned large stakes in to treat production workers like partners, after all they could do more to help you grow than anyone else.

    It is about time people realize that our workforces are not a collection of mindless, emotionless robots, but real people that should be treated with respect. What the hospital was doing was showing total disrespect for their workers, and in the end LEAN tools without Lean attitude, will cause you more problems than you started with.

  14. Mark Graban

    October 22, 2010 - 9:55 am

    I agree with Len that outsiders should have a role and can be very helpful. Outside eyes help but must be in partnership with inside eyes. Te lean group needs to be educators, coaches, facilitators – not the ones doing it all.

  15. Jon Miller

    November 1, 2010 - 6:51 pm

    Unless you have already established a strong culture of small group activity and engagement from top to bottom through a TPM program, suggestion systems, TQC or other subsets of lean, a “lean group” will be necessary at first to maintain drive and focus in the short term. The other approach is to deliberate not have a lean group but to mentor the leadership team into taking on the role of lean coaches. This is the high road to take, a lot harder in the short term but far more successful in the long run. Recommended when the head of site / CEO is fully engaged and not in danger of retiring or taking a new job within 2-3 years.

  16. Mark Graban

    November 1, 2010 - 7:48 pm

    I think the question is less about *if* you have a lean group and more about what their role should be if you have one.

  17. Manuel F

    November 4, 2010 - 2:26 pm

    I believe that if there are lean groups they should be focused on both: waste reduction & people development ! People development is specially important to create a Lean Culture, like the following proverb:

    “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”—Author unknown

    Applied to this subject, if you teach, coach & develop people you can spread the lean culture and obtain better benefits on the medium term.

  18. Steven Martin

    November 16, 2010 - 3:04 pm

    Improvement is best done by working with the people who are actually engaged in the work. Facilitators will achieve better results if they can teach the participants how to make improvements rather than to impose those “improvements” upon them. There is no better way to engage people than to make them part of the solution. Yes, it may take a little longer than it might if you bring in a “Lean hit team” but there is no doubt that the results will be more sustainable.

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