Lean: the People Process

“Implementing Lean concepts and principles is not a technological issue. It is primarily a management and human resource issue.” 

Kenneth E. Kirby, Associate Professor, Department of Industrial Engineering, University of Tennessee    

Since 1996 I have worked with thousands of people to help them improve processes and cut red tape in hundreds of organizations: big, small, new, old, public, private and non-profit sector. If there’s two things I’ve learned in all that time it’s that: 
1. most people, in most organizations simply revile red tape 
2. unless done right, they will extend similar feelings to anyone who tries to help them 
    whether they be bosses, peers or consultants

Lean is a globally recognized cure for red tape. Its roots are firmly planted in the work of world renowned statistician Dr. W. Edwards Deming and the Japanese Quality revolution of the 20th Century. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lean_manufacturing 

Predictably, some experiences have been more successful than others and, after 20 years, Berlineaton has developed a pretty good idea as to what works well and what doesn’t. But we wondered about what others have learned too. For those who have followed the Lean pathway in their organizations, what would they recommend to cut red tape without making people hate the experience? 

To help us answer that question, we scanned the Lean space and found an enormous amount of information about major Lean initiatives delivered by a wide variety of public and private sector organizations around the world like the BC Ministry of Health, Toyota Motor Corporation, and Royal Dutch Shell. 

What we found surprised us: up to 70% of Lean initiatives fail to provide sustained results. 


Let’s look at what we discovered, but first I should describe the process (see what I did there?) we used to arrive at our conclusions: 

  • Step 1: We reviewed 20 sources of information regarding Lean initiatives, searching for lessons learned and other reasons cited for success or failure. These were mainly big reports written about major initiatives clearly costing millions of dollars  
  • Step 2: We looked for common themes across these many lessons learned. We discovered 15 of them  
  • Step 3: We assigned each of the themes we identified into one of the three dimensions of organizational effectiveness embodied in Berlineaton’s approach: Direction, Process and People 
  • Step 4: We compared these results with what we have learned in the past 20 years to see how well they line up, and what conclusions we could draw, if any, from this information 

    Direction: the vision, goals, strategies, and tactics propel an organization towards its purpose. Direction gives meaning to action and translates activity into progress. We grouped the following five themes under Direction:  
    • Direction 1: Visible Senior Leadership commitment through words and action  
    • Direction 2: Ensure improvements are fully detailed and documented  
    • Direction 3: Provide the resources needed to improve the process  
    • Direction 4: Provide explicit targets and expectations, and provide feedback  
    • Direction 5: Invest in, and commit to, a single methodology

    Process: day-to-day tasks and deliverables yield their best results when processes are clear and strong, and aligned with organizational objectives. Effective processes turn direction into action. We grouped the following two themes under Process: 
    • Process 1: Use data to guide improvements  
    • Process 2: Carefully align the incentives within your company

    People: they have the skills, capability, and impetus to translate strategic intent into reality. People and the culture they create drive the future of an organization. We grouped the following eight themes under People:  
    • People 1: Build trust by removing fear  
    • People 2: Initiate long-term cultural change  
    • People 3: Communicate the vision to all stakeholders
    • People 4: Be certain that staff benefit from the new process and that it has no adverse impact on them  
    • People 5: Make sure that people are aligned  
    • People 6: Establish ongoing communication  
    • People 7: Expect resistance and failures  
    • People 8: Measure change management and hold people accountable 

    So what does this information tell us? 

    ‘People’ considerations outnumber the other two combined and represent 47% of the total number of themes we identified.

    ‘Process’, the core reason for the existence of Lean in the first place, has the fewest number of themes, two, only representing 12% of the total.   

    Using this approach, we discovered that Lean, counter-intuitively, is not a ‘Process’ improvement methodology but a ‘People’ focused methodology. 
    This squares precisely with our many years of experience. Good leadership and a strong adherence to sound people and change management practises will always achieve better results in Lean, or any other kind of, improvement effort. 

    So when leading a Lean initiative, remember, although the direction you provide and processes you redesign are important too, it’s really all about the people involved. Ignore that, and your ‘Lean Dreams’ will, more likely than not, be dashed upon the rocks of resistance.      

    Richard Eaton is the co-founder of Berlineaton, a management consulting company based in Victoria and serving the world. For more information about Richard and Berlineaton, please visit www.berlineaton.com 

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