Rumors have it that the vast majority of Lean transformations fail. Some even quote success rates as being below 10%. There are many problems with this. How we define success. When (too soon) we measure and conclude failure. What exactly we are measuring. The lack of a data set. But we can’t deny that improvements we make naturally erode. Abuse or lack of upkeep causes equipment to break down. Changing conditions cause past best practices to be suboptimal. Entropy causes systems and processes to deteriorate. Even when we are not declaring failure, a common question among people practicing continuous improvement is “How do we sustain the results of improvement?” We can answer this question from three perspectives.
First, we must reflect on whether our results were real enough to be sustained. To what degree did we achieve the results we set out to achieve? Did we lock in our financial results to our personal plan or business plan? Or are the results still on paper, partial or unverified? Often teams make good progress during the kaizen event or project sprint, but not all the way. Were these changes enough for the new process to be complete, smooth and functionally better? When the team meets a roadblock, some leaders yield to the temptation of cutting bait. We are different. Lean doesn’t work for us. We can go back to doing things the way we know, the old way. Did the new and improved condition become real and important enough for us to care about it, protect it, maintain it? If not, it is unlikely to sustain.
Second, we need to confirm that the real results we are enjoying are due to real process improvements. External factors or conditions, working harder, or favorable natural variation in the process can all lead to better results. But as these variables give, they can also take away. How many clear changes can we assign as causes? How large were these changes? How many ideas do we have for ongoing improvement? A good leading indicator of the sustainability of Lean transformations, or improved conditions in general, is the size and number of kaizen ideas. Big kaizen ideas are always welcome, especially if they are easy to implement. However, the greater the speed and quantity of kaizen ideas we generate, from more people, the better chance we have to adapt to change. The smallest steps are essential when entropy is a constant downward escalator.
The third key to sustaining improvement results best summarized in a quote by Brave New World author Aldous Huxley; “The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.” We must never grow too proud or satisfied with how good things are. We must never lose interest in the processes we “fixed” in the past. We must keep checking back. We must make checking activity less of a burden for everyone involved. Done correctly, this becomes an enjoyable part of a daily management routine. It aligns the organization, builds thinking and communication skills and reveals the true conditions to the visiting leaders.
Lean transformations sustain when we are striving for results that we care about and understand what factors contribute toward success. They sustain when we are not too focused on short-term results. They sustain when we install systems to monitor sustainment and commit personal time to managing via these systems. The truth is that improvement activity is not sustainable by itself. There is a reason that the improvement cycle is not Plan, Do but continues through Check, Adjust.