Tips for Lean Managers

Lean Maturity and the Four Stages of Competence

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

People often ask how good or bad they are compared to best in class lean organizations. Not satisfied with answers of “there is no end on the journey”, they want to know how far along they are. This is a fair question, and typically answered by ranking the application of lean tools or practice on a 1 to 5 scale. An example may be “no 5S” being a 1 to “5S used to systematically identify and reduce waste” being a 5. This type of lean maturity assessment provides useful guideposts on the lean journey. One of the risks with this approach is that the map itself becomes the journey. This is confusing the means with the end.

Measuring the end results is another popular approach, through the use of a balanced scorecard and benchmark key performance indicators. If the results are good, the argument goes, the process itself must be good. Strongly results-driven lean deployments can quickly gain traction due to the enthusiasm for visible financial impact. However the methods can sometimes run roughshod over people, leaving the long-term sustainability of the results at serious risk. A lean deployment with a long-term focus must assure that there are adequate short-term gains to fuel and fund the effort, while developing people and building capability in the organization.

Another challenge with gauging the progress of an organization along the lean journey is the fact that there is by necessity a periodic recalibration of what we consider to be good. An organization in the early stages may be thrilled at the improved process and results delivered through kaizen, yet reflect a year later and wonder how they could have seen anything but waste in those “after kaizen” photos. At each major stage of lean maturity there is an order of magnitude difference in our perception. Our eyes for waste become sharper, our tolerance for nonsense more limited, our respect for the individual deeper.

This makes providing a linear and non-dynamic, which is to say simple, lean maturity assessment a challenge. In fact we may need not one but several ways of measuring lean maturity. The measurement criteria need to be reset depending on the stage of competence of the organization and their ability to grasp the current situation with a deeper level of accuracy. Viewing lean maturity through the four-stage conscious competence learning model can be a helpful. The four stages, adapted to organizations on the lean journey, are:

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence: The organization does not know how to practice lean behaviors, how to build lean systems or apply lean tools for continuous improvement.

Crucially, the Stage 1 organization does not recognize this gap. The financial performance of the organization may be good. They may be internationally recognized as a leader in their field. They may genuinely be good at what they do, but wasteful or otherwise structured in an unsustainable way. The Stage 1 organization often resists, fails to see or denies that lean can successfully apply to them. It is not possible for an organization to progress from Stage 1 to Stage 2 until they recognize the urgent need to change. Faced with success in the current condition or the option to remain the same, organizations can remain Stage 1 indefinitely. Many organizations that dabble in lean tools or apply disjointed efforts towards continuous improvement remain in Stage 1 because they do not acknowledge the fact that the problem is not with lean system, it is with the user.

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence: The organization does not yet know how to apply lean tools, build lean systems or manage through lean behaviors but there is recognition of this gap. Crucially, the Stage 2 organization acknowledges the value of lean to their organization, even without fully understanding how to achieve and sustain these benefits.

The majority of the learning and transformation happens during Stage 2 by making mistakes, iterating and attempting multiple experiments, sincerely attempting to understand how to put lean theory into local practice. Organizations may remain in Stage 2 for very long periods of time and experience significant degrees of success. However the sustainability of this success is mostly through luck and considerable effort rather than through design. Nor is sustainability built into the approach. In order to exit Stage 2, the organization must be dissatisfied enough, humble enough and brave enough to tackle the root causes of their incompetence, which reside in various systems.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence: The Stage 3 organization knows how lean works and thoroughly applies these practices across the enterprise. Furthermore, lean practices are rapidly converted into standards, into stated norms. The consciousness of this competence we call lean has been elevated to the highest level in the Stage 3 organization. Significant conscious effort is required to on the part of senior leadership to design process, build or convert existing systems and to change behaviors. The Stage 3 organization is neither 100% conscious nor 100% competent throughout, but crucially the senior leadership, the majority of the front line workforce and a significant cohort of supervision and middle management are conscious and competent, and working to close the gaps. The lean deployment is referred to in terms of a management system or operating system. It is given a name such as Company X Production System or Enterprise Y Business System. This system is highly detailed and specified, moving beyond the “lean is common sense” thinking to the recognition that much of lean is deeply counter-intuitive and requires constant checks, ongoing education and daily reinforcement. The only way for organizations to exit Stage 3 is through practice, practice and more practice.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence: The people within a Stage 4 organization find lean practices to be second nature, performed nearly without thought or conscious effort. A certain level of mastery has been achieved through practice. The advanced Stage 4 organization may not be able to clearly articulate or explain what is special about what they do. Asked why they do things they way they do, individuals within a Stage 4 organization may become puzzled by the question, wondering “Isn’t it obvious?” There are two ways for the Stage 4 organization to exit this stage: by becoming conscious again that they are not truly competent and redoubling their efforts to remain in Stage 4, or by remaining unconscious, succumbing to hubris and regressing into Stages 1, 2 or 3. For former we can call Stage 4 Prime, and latter simply backsliding.

This model is typically applied to learners, but what about teachers? We certainly want our teachers to be competent, but is an unconsciously competent teacher truly at a higher level of capability than an consciously competent one? The organization that seeks to retain the lean competence long-term must invest in systematic and ongoing training for people at all levels, whether they are new hires or veterans. This seems to conflict with the idea that unconscious competence is the highest level of capability, as lean sustainability requires a degree of constant consciousness, a reminder to practice and not just scrimmage.

The majority of trainers, consultants, sensei – all words for teacher – come from companies advanced into Stage 3 or early in Stage 4. Ironically the individuals from advanced Stage 4 companies do not always make the best teachers – they must first regain some consciousness of their competence, a realization that what is normal and routine to them may be quite significantly different to a learner in a Stage 1 or 2 organization. Attempting to apply Stage 4 behaviors and practices prior to laying the groundwork via Stage 3 activity often leads to setbacks or failures. Most organizations must exit Stages 1 and 2 or be guided through them before attempting Stage 3 and 4 practices. Only those who have gone through these early stages can reliably do so.

The lean journey is a long and arduous one. It spans one’s full lifetime, unless we leave the path first. We should be aware of and celebrate even the smallest wins along the way. What we need to be careful of is celebrating too much and falling unconscious. There is a larger contest that is being played out every day: the battle of backsliding versus continuous improvement. If we look and listen carefully we can see signs of this battle all around us. Even as we become unconsciously competent we need to slap each other conscious from time to time lest we regress.

  1. Matt Wrye

    May 27, 2011 - 6:52 pm

    Jon –
    I am glad you posted this. This is something that I learned several years ago and it is very true. I still try to gauge where people are on this path.

  2. MO

    May 28, 2011 - 8:28 am

    Thanks for the gorgeous article; it is very interesting as I have been looking for a model to assess the readiness of the organisation towards lean. However I have a question:
    Can this model be introduced to organisation who have not heard of lean, it is pretty obvious they will be considered as stage one “Unconscious Incompetence” but how I can test them, as they might have not heard of lean but they already implemented lean tools in one form or another, the questions is which area I need to investigate in to be able to understand the organisation ability to implement lean, how I can assess them and then prescribe the lean recipe to them?
    Kind regards,

  3. John Santomer

    May 28, 2011 - 11:59 pm

    Dear Jon,
    It is alarming to note that some are driven by unconscious competence and when asked why (Normal Kaizen practice of 5 Whys) they do it would simply reply “Isn’t it obvious?”. If an organization has achieved this level, all its associates should be responsible to understand and disseminate to anyone the reason/s why things are done “ as they are”. Continuous improvement does not stop because you do things as you are told. And an associate told to do things can, at some time, practice and perfect a process taught him (“HA” stage) until he reaches the levels that he himself can question the “sensei” why things are “as they are”, perfect the process and bring it at an even higher level (“RI” stage).
    It is frightening to think that people would do things unconsciously! It’s like doing things without thinking of the consequences of his or her actions (without thinking its long term or short term results). If this is the case, what would differentiate a person like this to a robot running on a specific set of programs or an animal driven by survival instincts? And yet, greater is the responsibility of one who is consciously making decisions, having to make them and choose between the good of the many and the right of a few to ensure sustainability, continuity and the life of any organization. At what cost? The Last Samurai is a 2003 alternate history film about an American army captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) who is hired to train Japanese troops during the Meiji Restoration.(Emperor Meiji – Shichinosuke Nakamura) Is this really a responsibility that one has to take to ensure sustainability? Do choices have to come to these levels because of neglect for consequences from previous decisions? And yet it is the nation known for perfecting levels of complete Zen. I am asking WHY – even if this is already history and even if it’s an alternate story made as a film.

  4. Rudi Mayers

    May 31, 2011 - 8:53 am

    Actually, I see it more like playing a sport, in the Conscious Incompetence to Unconscious Competence transition. A top sportsman performing at his or her best is not truly conscious of how he/she executes each shot, he/she simply relies on muscle memory. He/she only becomes conscious of this when things are not going well and then they either need to recall how they reached “perfection” in the first place or seek coaching to figure out what has gone wrong. A beginner in that sport will be unconsciously incompetent and after good coaching they will become consciously incompetent. After much coaching and practise they might become consciously competent and it is usually only when they reach this state that it is possible to transition to become unconsciously competent. It is sometimes said that some individuals are “naturals” which presumably means that they are unconsciously competent. I’m guessing one can apply this analogy to any discipline. For instance a savant will not be able to tell you how they can see patterns in music or rapid calculations or a whole number of other activities so in essence they are unconsciously competent.

  5. Robert Drescher

    June 7, 2011 - 9:02 am

    Hi Jon
    It is an interesting thought the concept of unconscious competence, though in reality I doubt it really exists. I have had the chance to meet several very talent athletes, and in otherlines of work. What often gets missed is that these people all have one thing in common they constantly practise their basics. Only when they quit do they have to go back and re-learn them. Most of the highly skilled I have meet will tell you that it is their conscious effort to practise the fundamentals that keeps them performing at their level.
    It only looks like it is easy for them, the reality is that the game is the result of a lot of basic practise all of which is thoughtout carefully.

  6. Alex KUBI

    July 7, 2011 - 12:30 pm

    Great reading, on the project management course I did at a client – the soft skill element, turned to be one of the reason why projects at the do not come to successful closure.
    The competence/competency – aptitude/attitude are very wanting. I found that soft skill is a very vital building block in achieving high performance.
    I am very enlightened by the fact you did the article right on time…great job Jon.

  7. Tim

    February 22, 2012 - 12:11 pm

    From the article: …but is an “unconsciously competent” teacher truly at a higher level of capability than an “unconsciously competent” one?
    — Did you mean to use “consciously” in the second usage?

  8. Jon

    February 27, 2012 - 4:34 pm

    Hi Tim
    Nice catch. Yes, the second use should be “consciously”. It’s been corrected.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.