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January 2004

Today, there is more than enough information on "what" lean is, more than enough information on lean tools, but still very little useful information on HOW to take on a lean transformation and how to lead the change. Every company's lean journey starts under different circumstances, and so there can be no one recipe, no "right way." But there are many factors to consider to help you succeed before embarking on your lean journey.

Jamie Flinchbaugh
Lean Learning Center
Whenever I visit with a audience of manufacturers I do a quick survey. The first question is "how many of you have heard of lean?" Not surprising, usually every hand go up. Even when the audience is from the financial community, more and more hands go up. Then I ask "how many of you are doing something about lean?" Then the numbers of hands up get cut in half - many aren't doing a think, usually because they don't know how to start or see too many barriers to make the commitment. The last question is the cincher - "how many would consider your lean efforts a raging success?" To this all-important question, I usually see no more than one hand up. So how is it that such a low percentage of companies that know about lean can turn it into a success? It's not because they haven't heard about continuous flow, or they don't know how to do the 5S's, or they've never seen a kaizen workshop. It is because the leadership, cultural, organizational and implementation challenges are bigger than most people anticipate.

Someone, who if I knew who it was I would be happy to give credit, said wisely: "experience is not what you've been through; it's what you take from it." The fundamental message is that every success AND failure should yield as much learning as you can wring from it. We've done that, focusing at all times on what makes successful lean transformations. While the lessons are too numerous to count, here are our top ten:

1. Rome wasn't built in a day
And neither will your lean transformation. Lean is not a one- or two-quarter transformation. It takes one to two years to build the necessary momentum, and from there your journey will last forever. Yes, tools such as kaizens can provide very fast and significant improvement, but without taking the time to implement a program that yields sustainable benefits, process improvements gained by lean tools will slowly deteriorate back to where you started. Significant and sustainable results will occur throughout the entire process, but the most profitable returns are realized through a 2 - 5 year plan.

2. This is not a part-time job.
Don't expect someone to lead the lean charge in his/her spare time. You need to assign a dedicated leader or team to take this challenge on. It requires daily attention from leaders who fully understand the scope of the project and who wont' get caught up in today's distractions. Most cultures are centered around solving today's problem, reacting faster and better, and getting results today or tomorrow. Stuck in that culture, it is hard for leaders to consider a multi-year journey - people need to be extracted to focus on a different timeline. In addition, these leaders require continued support from management throughout the implementation.

3. Lean is more than just tools
Lean is not born from what you see, it is born from how you think. Lean is a set of rules and principles, not just tools. Tools focus on physical system changes, but that is not where the heart of lean beats. The entire way of thinking must become embedded in every person of your organization. You may fix one problem or process with a lean tool today, but if the old thinking continues, it will recreate the old problems. Only new principles or beliefs change behaviors, not systems or tools. Sustainable lean change, the kind that builds momentum, comes from the mind and heart of all employees.

4. Lean is a journey that never ends.
There is a tendency for companies to declare "we've done it - we achieved lean." The truth is, lean is a constant, never-ending process. You will always striving to be lean, but you never get there, because there is always a gap between where you are and your ideal state. If you believe that your journey has ended, you've failed. Even when you can consider yourself a success, do not stop. Success is an organization that continues to move forward at such a pace that it would be difficult to even slow it down. Consider Toyota - no matter how much better they are than their competition, they continue to find more and more opportunities to improve each and every year.

5. Be prepared for resistance
When change is proposed, people often feel threatened. Some will think it's because there has been something wrong with what they were doing, but most will just be uncomfortable with the unknown. So, as your company embarks on this journey, you must work to help people understand why, what and how, and remove the fears -- or make NOT moving forward more fearful. Also, many people think "lean" means cutting staff, when in reality it's about working smarter to preserve heads and even grow the workforce through market growth.

6. You need leaders to take on this challenge, not managers
Managing is maintaining current reality. Leadership is moving people towards the ideal state. And you can't lead people to where they already are. Lean transformation is about leadership. And leadership is not a position or rank - look for people at every level of the enterprise capable of this. If lean is about transforming thinking, then in order to lead lean, you must be able to teach.

7. Be prepared for the investment - both people and time
People will need to learn new skills and they will need the time to gain them. This means experimenting with every process everyday to get it right. There is also a financial investment mostly in training but also in process changes, but evidence is clear that the payback for this period is in months and not years. You can use focused-improvement tools such as kaizens to get immediate gains and pay for your investment. The potential of difference between lean and non-lean companies is not 5-10 percent, it is 100-1000% differences in quality, cost, delivery and of course, profit.

8. Lean is not just about the shop floor
Taiichi Ohno, one of the fathers of the Toyota Production System, said decades ago that "the Toyota Production System is not just a production system." If you reduced your lead time in manufacturing by 90% and could get product out in hours, but order entry takes four weeks, you aren't really moving forward in the market. You must attack every corner of the business from accounting to human resources to manufacturing.

9. There is no recipe, but there is a roadmap
A recipe tells you exactly how to do something - the amounts, sequence and timing. There is no such recipe for lean success since every company starts with a different set of ingredients (or factors and constraints). However, there is a roadmap. There are guide posts along the way that help you determine where you are and offer potential solutions to help you get to where you want to go. Learn from as many other journeys as possible to help understand the roadmap.

10. Don't just copy the answers
Many people have tried to succeed at lean in the past by copying the solutions that Toyota or others have found, either through benchmarking or out of a book. The problem is, this is like a kid copying off someone else's test only to find out they were taking a different exam. Your company is unique and will likely have some unique problems and constraints - you must engrain lean thinking in your organization so you can find your own answers.

What are your lessons learned? Never stop collecting them, for your lean transformation is a long enough of a journey, that you will need each and every one of them.


Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and brings successful and varied experiences of lean transformation as both a practitioner and facilitator. Jamie was part of the development, training and implementation of the Chrysler Operating System, a widely-benchmarked lean change program spearheaded by Lean Learning Center partner Dennis Pawley. He most recently was at DTE Energy, parent company to Detroit Edison and MichCon, as a lean thought leader to help build the first lean program in a utility and to transform the operations, leadership and thinking of the utility industry towards a philosophy of lean systems. He is also a principle in Cobra Motorcycles, a producer of American-made off-road motorcycles for youth motocross racing. He has a wide-range of operational experiences, including production, maintenance, product engineering, manufacturing engineering and production control. Most of this was experienced while at Chrysler Corporation and Harley-Davidson. While at Chrysler, Jamie was a major contributor to the design of the new Jeep Liberty plant in Toledo, OH, a major new asset for Chrysler and their first designed using lean concepts.

Jamie is a graduate fellow of the highly-regarded Leaders for Manufacturing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he received an MBA from the Sloan School of Management and a Masters of Engineering degree and his research thesis was Implementing Lean Manufacturing through Factory Design. He has also received a Masters of Engineering from the University of Michigan and holds BS in Engineering from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.

Jamie is a frequent writer and speaker on lean. Articles include the popular Beyond Lean, The Extraordinary Vision of Henry Ford and others for various industry magazines. He has also wrote a training video called Learning Lean Through Simulation which will soon be release by SME (The Society of Manufacturing Engineers) and has a book contract with SME for a book titled Lean Learning: Lessons from Transformation Efforts of 12 Companies. Jamie has spoken at numerous conferences, including one co-sponsored by the Lean Learning Center and Clemson University. Jamie can be contacted at 248-478-1480 or

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