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Lean manufacturing: How often have you tried?

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Operations Excellence by Sepp Gmeiner
Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions please email
Not every company is implementing Lean manufacturing successfully. Some efforts fizzle out and a frustrated management will have an even more challenging task to get it started again. Looking at success stories and analysing why they were successful 
and why others failed resulted in a few isolated reasons and key factors.
The first reason is management commitment. We know that any project and/or change in an organization requires management commitment. So, I would like to go deeper on this point.
Management training
The management team needs to be convinced that Lean manufacturing is the right way to go. Lean needs to promise to be worth the effort required for years to come. One way to find out, is to take
the management team through the training. Only then can management see what is ahead. In companies where management did not participate in the courses, the participating ranks often commented: … “our president should be here and hear this!” ...” Why are you telling us? – tell the owner!” Having the management group be the first to participate has a double effect. First, it educates the leadership group, and second, it signals to the ranks that the management is on board.
Visiting companies with Lean manufacturing experience
Again, seeing a plant well advanced in the Lean transformation helps to build management commitment. Seeing and hearing first hand what difficulties other companies had will cut down your implementing time. Plant tours like those organized by the CKCA or by the Bluewater Wood Alliance are very valuable. Specific one-on-one visits between friendly companies are also an option. The visited companies do not even have to be the same industry. It is amazing how much you can pick up from other manufacturing plants.

Management must want Lean manufacturing
If the owner or any of the key management is not sold on Lean, successful implementation will be difficult. For example, if the owner is committed, but one manager at the next level (i.e. finance or production manager) is not, you will face an uphill battle. In my opinion, you need to spend more time and effort to bring the non-believer on board before you try to convert her or his reports. This is applicable all the way down the corporate ladder, however, most important on the upper ranks.

Management should appoint a Lean champion
When implementing Lean manufacturing the organization needs a champion - the go-to person for the transformation. Of course, the most suitable person would be a person with lots of Lean manufacturing implementation experience. If you don’t have that person or you do not have the budget, there are other options. Look at your existing employees. Who would be most interested in taking on this project?
Who would be most the enthusiastic candidate? The right personality is more important than current rank and Lean experience. Lean can be trained.
The next major step in successful Lean implementation is setting up for success. Up to this point management is convinced this is the right way to go, understands the long-term commitment they need to make, and they have assigned a dedicated resource to get started.

Lean champion
The Lean champion needs to take charge. She/he coordinates the next steps and drives the process. Management needs to accept and support this champion as the driving force to change.

Get outside help
Companies can implement without an outside consultant. All required knowledge is available in books and in the training material. What an outside consultant brings is experience. I came across advertising for a weight-loss company. There is some relative similarity in losing weight and becoming Lean. The weight-loss company’s slogan is: “If you could do it alone – you would have done it already!”

Employee Lean training
In the next step, every affected employee needs to pass through Lean 101 - basic training. Since all staff are eventually affected, everyone should be trained. If it is a larger company, training could start in one area of the company. This training sets the tone and expectation of what is coming. All employees need to understand the different types of waste.

Starting projects
You can not start Lean throughout the company at the same time. You need to start somewhere.
5S is a good starting place. 5S is a systemized employee driven clean-up and keep-tidy process. The Lean champion and management should select one (small) area. Best is to pick an area where there are employees and/or supervisors already convinced of the program. You start with an easy win. From this success you move to the next one; you pick bigger and more difficult areas. 
5S is a good starting point.
Other great starting points are Kaizen events, or continuous improvement processes. Set some time aside and have the employees find and implement several small improvements. Companies that take this seriously set aside a half to a full hour per person per day to work on improvements. They do it as the starting activity at the beginning of the day – not at the end of the day when they want to go home.
These are just two tools out of the big Lean tool box. It is up to you to decide which tools you want to use to start.

Underlying forces
All the Lean tools have their place and will work. In order to pick them in the right sequence you also need to understand the underlying forces — what drives Lean?

Push versus pull
If you push the employees, they will resist and push back. If you teach them and inspire them with Lean, they will pull.
Employee Participation
The push vs. pull thinking develops into employee participation. Theoretically, if the leading manager knows everything and maps out what every person must do for success, it will not be sustainable in the long run. As I like to say: Even Superman is no match for the force you can develop by training your people in Lean.
Get started, train them, then get out of their way.

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