How to Roll Out a Lean Transformation

The goal of a lean transformation is to shift the culture of an organization toward lean. In my last post I discussed a lot of prerequisites. In this post I would like to discuss how to actually do it. Be warned, there is no magic bullet. There is no simple trick that just turns lean on. It is a lot of hard work.

It Is Bottom Up

Top-level managers love to do things top down. After all, that is what they are getting paid for. However, you cannot make your organization lean through a top-down decree. At the same time, there is not enough manpower to change the entire organization bottom up at the same time (unless you have hundreds of lean experts available like Toyota). Hence, you have to start somewhere.

If your area of responsibility is small, then that’s where you will start. If, however, you want to transform a large enterprise with multiple plants, you have to pick one plant, or even one department within a plant where you should start. Since these projects serve to convince people as well as training them in lean, you should pick an area and topic where the chances of success are high, and where it matters to the operators. This would also mean … and I don’t really like saying it so bluntly but it is that way … to pick a location of your cultural background. You need to work with people a lot, and bringing cultural differences into the project makes it more difficult. Maybe do the foreign (to you) plants later.

Also, having one successful project is not enough. From the point of view of the operators, once is a fluke. After completing three successful projects, they are more likely to trust lean. They also know more about lean at that point. Once the lean spirit is strong enough to survive on its own, you can focus on other departments or plants. But make sure that the environment allows them to continue doing lean. It requires time, maybe even some invest, and people often only do it if management is watching at least every now and then.

You Need Capability Building

The purpose of these lean projects is to not only motivate people for lean, but to also build capability. Lean is a lot of learning by doing. Your people need to practice lean to become good at it. Doing projects is the best way. Trainings and simulations can help them understand the theory behind it, hence you may also invest in some training. But again, the focus is on real projects on your real shop floor.

Exercising Weight
Can’t delegate that…

Did I say building capability of your people? What about yourself? Or your boss? Depending on your skills in lean, you should participate or lead at least a few lean projects yourself. Similar to the operators, leadership also needs to learn about lean. Again, lean is a culture, and a culture starts from the top. If the top executives have only a theoretical knowledge of lean, then it will be difficult. It is hard to support a culture if the person is not part of that culture. If the lean culture starts only half way down the hierarchy, chances are that the top may neglect or accidentally even harm the lean spirit. It is a bit like losing weight … you can’t delegate the exercise and dieting to others.

Depending on the lean capabilities you have in-house, or the lack thereof, you may benefit from an external coach that can help you with lean. Such an external support could take part throughout the entire transformation, although due to the cost many companies opt to use this help only during the initial stages of the transformation.

Check and Review

Blue Collar MeetingProjects should be reviewed regularly by management and other stakeholders. Often this happens in a meeting room with presentations, which I find not so useful. An alternative is a meeting room with A3 reports, which is better. Best is of course to do it on the shop floor directly where the processes are. This does not mean PowerPoint presentations on the shop floor (I have seen those!). It means looking directly at the machine as much as possible. Depending on your circumstances, a weekly review is often chosen.

It Is a Long-Term Process

Observing the completion of his lean transformation…

A lean transformation to change the corporate culture will take time. Probably more than you want. It is also hard to schedule this ahead of time. Projects are not necessarily completed with the due date, but are done if the C&A of the PDCA are completed. I understand the desire of management to schedule it ahead of time, but due to the nature of lean projects it will be tough to schedule one project, let alone a sequence of projects. The more lean experts you have, the more projects you can start. But don’t spread them too thin. It is easier for them to work in small groups rather than with a standalone expert on its own. Also, once you have trained some experts yourself, you can send them to other locations to support the lean transformation there.

Steel or aluminum?

This long-term process should also go into the same direction. Let’s take a counterexample. In automotive there are frequent projects to reduce weight, especially around the wheels. The engineers dutifully replace steel struts with aluminum. Four years later there are similar projects to reduce cost. The engineers then dutifully replace aluminum struts with steel. Another four years later the priority is weight again and the struts are aluminum, only to be followed by another project four years later that replaces them again with steel to save cost. Overall, the company is not moving forward, but turning in circles. After a lot of work you end up where you started. Then you put in even more work to go there again.

True NorthObviously, it is much better if there would be a consistent direction. This is often called True North. But it is not that easy to have a good true north. Often, everything is important (usually cost, quality, and time), sometimes with different priorities on different weeks. Even if you (or your boss) has a good idea of where you want to be, it may not survive the next change in command. One of the great things of Toyota is that they were able to drive the company in the same direction for 50+ years, across multiple generations of management.

Again, a lean transformation is not easy. It is based on lots of smaller individual lean projects, hopefully changing the culture of your company over time. Now, go out, get the lean transformation going, and organize your industry!

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2 thoughts on “How to Roll Out a Lean Transformation”

  1. Hi Christoph, I really like your approach on working on a company culture for your Lean transformation. Key agreement for starting. Yet, the objective should always remain to increase customer value. Arriving at the overall Business Strategy (product leadership / customer intimacy / operational excellence), helping us to define non-value adding activities, we step into the never-ending on-going journey of company competition. Therefore, talking about time (‘It is a long-term process’) is dangerous too me, as it often imply to look at your Lean transformation as a project, definite in time.
    Moreover, linking your lean transformation to your overall business strategy, is in my experience often overlooked as key aspect of ‘management commitment’ and one of the main reasons for failing your Lean transformation.

  2. Hi Pepijn, you are right. What I meant with “long term process” is a “never ending process”. The moment you stop you start to fall behind.

    As for “customer value”, it is important, but there are also things like “profit” and “respect for humanity” and others that are also important. Balancing these is not an easy task.

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