It’s always difficult to make change, and it’s even more difficult for a Lean transformation since it is a change toward perfection. As the saying goes, “Only a downhill path walks easy”.
To begin with, many senior leaders itch to implement Lean principles to every corner of their companies after realizing the importance of Lean for their business. However, they will soon face all kinds of barriers, and they only have limited resources and energy to deal with these barriers. That’s one of the reasons why so many good initiatives end up with nothing. If the first initiative of a Lean transformation fails, then it becomes even harder the next time since people will be even more resistant to the change. As the saying goes, “Don’t eat the elephant by just one bite, you might need fork and knife”.
To successfully complete a lean transformation we recommend the seven steps with PDCA (Plan – Do – Check – Act):
- Set up a clear lean transformation plan and a cross functional team. Sometimes, a well prepared kickoff meeting can help.
- Choose a pilot area, which will be an experimental field. How to choose a successful pilot area will be discussed later.
- Prepare the leaders to make sure that every level, from top to bottom, are committed to support the pilot area.
- Provide Just-In-Time training during implementation. Focus on the right behavior, remove the blockages.
- Do the short interval checking, and recognize that “problems are gold”. Correct mistakes the moment they are found. If it doesn’t work out well, you need to ask 5 WHYs (not 5 WHOs). Think of how the new method WILL work, not how it won’t.
- If the pilot area successfully becomes a benchmark, reflection is also needed: what worked well, what didn’t work well, what was missing and what needs to be done differently next time.
- After the success in pilot area, with valuable experience and lessons learned, it will be much easier for the next steps. It might be necessary to adjust the lean transformation plan before you roll out to other areas and eventually to the whole company.
There are common questions that are normally asked when starting the lean transformation such as: “How should I choose my Lean pilot area? Should I start with the worst performing place in my business or from the most important place?”
Clearly, selecting pilot area is more about people, rather than Lean tools. So it’s better to review the people for Lean transformation. Usually there are three kinds of people in an organization. The first kind of people are embracers, who are willing to try new ideas and improve their work; the second kind of people are negative energy generators, who always resist changes, especially when the improvement touches their own interests; the last one are sideliners, who wait and see the trend of the improvement campaign. It changes from organization to organization, but sideliners usually are majority.
In reality, it’s risky to start from the worst performing workplace with the worst culture. The worse the area chosen, the more barriers are to be faced. The reason why it becomes the worst place definitely has something to do with the people in that area. In this case, the resistance during the change will be much stronger. If it Lean fails in the pilot area, then the negative energy generators will certainly stand up and say: “You see, I told you, Lean doesn’t work in our company!” Moreover, once pilot area has failed, it diminishes everyone’s enthusiasm. The sideliners, usually a majority in the organization, might join the negative energy generators and oppose further change.
The success of the pilot area directly affects the success of the whole lean transformation. There is no choice but to make sure the pilot is very successful. Therefore, it’s strongly recommend that lean transformation journey should starts in an area where culture is positive, even if performance is currently poor. If it starts in a work area where the key process owners are embracers, then your pilot already half way to success. If it overcomes the barriers of leadership and culture, with the correct implementation approach, there’s no reason for the pilot area to fail.
Once Lean is successfully demonstrated in the pilot area, it definitely inspires and encourages everyone, including the people who work in other areas. Several years ago, after a Lean pilot area was successfully built in a Chinese state-owned company, a foreman (previously a negative energy generator) from other area came to the Lean office, banged the table, and complained: “Why did you not implement Lean in our area? You’re just biased!”
Overall, Lean journey is a learning process; it cannot expect it to be successful in just one step. With the demonstration of Lean in pilot area, you can soften the barriers of the whole journey. As people often say, well begun is half done. By applying PDCA cycle in pilot area, and making “change” the only constant in your business, eventually your company will become a Lean enterprise.