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REVEALED: The True Secret of Lean Success
April, 2018

There are a great many so-called experts out there, and they all claim to have the 'secret sauce', 'magic formula', or 'secret ingredient' to successfully implementing lean.

To get the secret, you have to hire their firm, you have to buy there book. You have to pay for their certification. You have to attend their training. They have to give it to you. Some go so far as to say that you'll fail if you don't.

This has created what I call the 'cult of failure' (or more simply, the 'failure crowd'). You'll see this all the time: "Lean fails 90% of the time." But has anyone ever said that 'they' failed? Apparently, lean fails

Bill Kluck
The Northwest Lean Networks

only when OTHERS implement it! The failure crowd misses on the very statistic they cite, because there is absolutely no data, anywhere, to support this assertion. (They also miss in that there is no consistent definition of lean failure, but that is a discussion for another time...)

When confronted by the lean failure crowd, it is helpful to remember one, unassailable truth:

"Lean doesn't fail companies, companies fail to get lean."

I'm not here to sell you a magic formula. I cannot sell you the pathway to lean. I can't give you the secret ingredient, or the magic sauce. It doesn't exist. That's because lean isn't a destination, or a product, or even an environment. Lean is really a state of mind, a way of responding to situations. Lean is a pathway, you're either on it, or you're not. You either make lean decisions, or you don't. You create processes which encourage lean behaviors, or your processes encourage (or require) wastes.

So let's talk about the filp-side of the coin, lean success. If lean truly is a state of mind, what does that mean? Perhaps the secret is in the behaviors 'lean thinkers' demonstrate. This requires that we get into the mind, and review how it's working. Behaviors suggest there is some decision process going on. What does the lean thinker do? What questions do they ask themselves?

I've come to the conclusion that lean thinkers are constantly asking themselves these questions, whenever a decision has to be made:

  • What happened before (this) got here?
  • What delays occurred?
  • How did these delays affect the outcome (which is now my input)?
  • What further delays are anticipated?
  • How can I eliminate some of those delays, right now?

    And of course,

  • Is there a better way?

These questions (and perhaps some others) lead lean thinkers to act to eliminate wastes, and better enable flows. These actions, or behaviors, demonstrate the differences in how lean thinkers process their environment, how they form their view of the world. Lean thinkers are constantly reviewing their environment, making judgement calls and acting to improve processes. Lean behaviors are the result of lean thinking.

"Perhaps the secret is in the behaviors
'lean thinkers' demonstrate."

Alas, these behaviors aren't the secret, only a demonstration of how lean is working, through the eyes of the individual, or the team. Even the lean thinking behind these acts and behaviors aren't the secret, no matter how important they are. So what is it?

For a moment, think about your own set of environments. Home, work, school. The playground, your favorite pub. The grocery store, the dry cleaners, a local restaurant. Lean thinkers are always evaluating these environments. Sometimes they can do something, other times they can't. They nearly ALWAYS make mention of a better way, how much waste exists, how flow could be improved. But unless you're a consultant, talk is cheap. There are relatively few environments you can actually affect.

Even at work, your options are limited. They are limited by your position, by your department, even by your boss. We hear a lot about "change is everyone's responsibility", but the change process usually doesn't allow immediate action, at least on your part. So while we might make note of the waste, we often do (and later even say) little about it. Pity.

In our own environments (our 'scope of control', which for most of us, extends pretty much the length of our arms, and no further), we have much more leeway. As professionals, we know our job. We know the tasks we need to perform, we understand the inputs and the outputs. We are clear on expectations. And while there may be procedures or processes in place, there is always some latitude in HOW we perform these tasks. THIS is where we can apply our lean thinking, and make a difference.

"Lean behaviors are the result of lean thinking."

But what if we make a mistake? What if we make a change, and it has a significant negative impact down the line? Do these questions appear in the list of what lean thinkers consider? Of course not! That's because lean thinkers instinctively know that successful change is made incrementally (small increments), success building on success, and failure building a library of experience.

What!? Failure? As a part of the lean process? How can that be possible? Many people can't admit failure, ever, let alone lead with it. One could argue, however, that failure is an integral part of the learning process. So why don't more people discuss their failures. One simple reason is that they aren't encouraged to share it. They aren't rewarded for failed efforts. In fact, they are often chastised, penalized, or worse, for admiting failure.

So is failure the secret to lean success? Seems counter-intuitive (so I could assert that it is!), but no. Failure is a component, but not the secret. The real secret to lean is (now, we're about to have a true Jerry Maguire moment here, so build the tension by slowly turning up your radio, then quickly turn it off):

("Show me the money!")

Yep. That's it. Trust. So simple, we all miss it as the MAJOR contributing factor, and in fact, the secret to lean success. (OK, turn your radio's back up!)

Wait, what does this even mean? Trust isn't specific to lean, so how could it be the secret to lean success?

That's right. Trust ISN'T specific to lean. Trust is necessary in ANY change effort (and in a lot of other things). In becoming a lean thinker, and in fact, a 'lean actor', you have to trust that your actions are NOT going result in a negative outcome, FOR YOU. This means your environment (supervisor, manager, partners, teammates) has to trust YOU. Trust they KNOW you're acting, not with some self-serving motive, but to improve the process. Trust that if you're wrong, the increment of change is small enough that you can quickly recover. Trust that if you have bigger improvements, you'll involve the entire team.

"Many people can't admit failure, ever..."

Now, trust is a 2-way street. You also have to trust your boss, and your team. You must trust that your boss, when you make a mistake, isn't going to hang you out to dry. And trust that your teammates will stand behind your mistakes, without throwing you under the bus.

Lack of this kind of trust will absolutely paralyze any improvement effort. Quite often, we don't really have this kind of trust. Sometimes, we have (at best) some kind of stalemate, where we hold our ideas to ourselves. We certainly don't put them out there, for all to ridicule. There is no gain in that! Thankfully, most change efforts happen very slowly, and in fact, fizzle out after about 3-5 years (due to lack of resources, and other factors). But lean efforts tend to move more quickly, don't they? They, too, tend to fizzle after 3-5 years, absent the kind of trust we're discussing here.

If you don't have this kind of trust in your organization, it doesn't mean lean will fail. It means that the company likely won't continue (for long) along a lean path. That doesn't have to mean that lean is a failure! You can still be a lean thinker, and a lean actor. It really just means that you need to keep your actions small, and within your scope of control. Success will still build on success, and your failures will continue to build up your library of experiences. Eventually (and sooner, rather than later) it WILL pay off for you. Someone who counts will eventually notice that you are getting superior results, and making a difference.

And lean is all about making a real difference, right?


no_photo.gifBill Kluck is the Founder and Director of Operations for The Northwest Lean Networks, a professional society which connects the community of lean professionals worldwide.

Bill has over 20 years of experience implementing lean in a wide variety of industries, both public and private. He has trained thousands of leaders & associates in various lean strategies and techniques, and has facilitated billions of dollars in impact. Bill's main focus is building transformational change and evolving business culture.

Bill earned his Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Washington, an MBA from Seattle University, and holds several continuous improvement certifications (including a Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and a Masterís Certification in Lean Methods). He currently works as Assistance Vice President for Genpact, LLC.

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