Many organizations find that they don’t always sustain the gain they make from continuous improvement activity. Over the long-term, this is one of the greatest challenges to keeping management committed to building a Lean culture. It’s not hard to make quick gains with Lean. But it is hard to stay Lean. Here are five reasons why.
1. The rate of improvement slows as you improve. Gains from rapid improvement workshops, employee improvement suggestions or other improvement projects are easier at first than a few years in. It stands to reason that there is more low-hanging fruit on the tree at the start of picking than later. When the rate of improvement slows, the resources spent on maintaining Lean systems may be questioned and reduced, with backsliding as the inevitable result.
2. We make improvements that we can’t live with for the long haul. It could be that we redesign workflows without solving deeper systemic problems. It could be that we mandate daily performance management systems without good ways to escalate and address problems. It could be changes are forced on people and therefore resisted or rejected by the prevailing culture. If we have reason to suspect that the gains won’t sustain, they probably won’t, unless we address them.
3. Our brains conspire against us. Part of human nature is to find ways to expend less energy. The gains we make from improvement may cause us to become complacent, lazy, proud and defensive of what we’ve accomplished, or to relax our vigilance. On a practical level this leads to avoidance of more difficult and systemic issues, building up stock or slack in our system or even a false belief that we are “done” with Lean, causing us to neglect its upkeep.
4. How much we add is more important than how much we eliminate. The focus of Lean tends to be on cutting out wasted effort, reducing inputs, trimming excess inventory, eliminating errors, generally doing a better job safely with less time and effort. But this is far from enough. The customers we choose to serve, strategic objectives we select, the policies we communicate, the products we launch, the new equipment or capabilities we buy, the forecasted demand we prepare to meet, who we hire and promote – when such decisions are bad they quickly wipe out years of built-up improvements. The way to counter this is to expand continuous improvement across all areas of the organization, making no decision or process off-limits to Lean principles.
5. Regular practice plays a key role in maintaining a Lean culture. Rituals, daily practices, routines, reminders and reinforcement of good habits are what keep cultures strong. Even when practice doesn’t appear to show direct results, it helps prevent poor decision-making and adding waste back into our systems.
These five reasons were inspired by the five realities of our biology that makes it difficult to keep weight off, from an NPR article. They are
1. Metabolism slows when you lose weight
2. If you choose to try to lose weight, make changes that you can live with for the long haul
3. Hormones in your brain conspire to make you hungrier when you lose weight
4. To lose weight, what you eat is more important than how much you exercise
5. On the other hand, exercise seems to play a big role in maintaining a lower weight
Lean is unfortunately named. Lean management is not about shedding waste, lowering inventory or streamlining processes. Neither is weight loss about losing weight. Both are much more about making lifestyle changes based on science and a deep commitment to our long-term ideals of health and wellness.