Matt Hrivnak

Kaizen: There's always another future state

Lean works.  Lean is right.  Lean is good.  Lean consistently proves its worth through continuous, stepwise gains for companies brave enough to take on the challenge of looking within themselves to correct deep founded issues with their status quo and historical patterns of behaviors.  So, why doesn’t Lean help every company that implements it?

The truth is, Lean doesn’t work for some companies because THEY (i.e. the companies it doesn’t work for) don’t allow it to work for them.  And that is why Lean fails.

Recently, something caught my eye that I’ve known for quite a few years now.  It was refreshing to see, but only because misery loves company and in terms of Lean, is still rather unfortunate news.  The annual survey from read like this (July 2007):


New Survey: Middle Managers Are Biggest Obstacle to Lean Enterprise

Nearly 40 percent of those polled cite middle management resistance, according to Lean Enterprise Institute

Cambridge, Mass., July 18 — Middle management resistance to change is now the number one obstacle to implementing the innovative business system known as lean production, according to a new survey completed by nearly 2,500 businesspeople and conducted by the Lean Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit management research center.

Middle management resistance was cited by 36.1 percent of respondents in LEI’s annual survey about lean business system implementation in the U.S. The top three obstacles to implementation were middle management resistance (36.1 percent), Lack of implementation know-how (31 percent), and employee resistance (27.7 percent).

Last year, backsliding to the old ways of working was the primary obstacle to introducing lean management principles, followed by lack of implementation know-how and middle management resistance. Backsliding dropped to sixth place in this year’s survey.

“Applying lean management principles exposes problems in traditional business systems, which often is threatening to middle managers in the problem areas,” said Chet Marchwinski, LEI communication director. “To get middle managers on board with the lean transformation, organizations must transform the metrics and behaviors for judging their performances.”

For instance, traditional financial metrics often need to be removed from day-to-day management decisions about key processes. Instead, operating managers have to learn to help employees look for waste and remove it.

Since 2003, LEI has surveyed managers and executives annually about the key obstacles they face in transforming their companies from mass production to lean. The latest results are based on 2,444 responses to an opinion survey distributed electronically to the 77,200 subscribers to LEI’s monthly e-letter. Respondents were asked to select all applicable obstacles from a list of 12 possibilities. Members also were polled on industry trends and the implementation level of their lean transformations.


I guess there is an obvious sense of naivety on my side for thinking that Middle Management Resistance would eventually go away, but that would be assuming that there isn’t a general ignorance and lack of a kazien mentality (i.e. betterment, continuous improvement mentality) exhibited by most managers.  Managers do things because they believe that they know what is best.  “It’s always worked that way, so why try to change it.” 

There is comfort in familiarization and docile activities that typically bog down managers.  Lean requires a huge, cultural change that breaks down the barriers of the common ways of looking at things.  It also requires a great deal of involvement from everyone within an organization.  This is especially true for the CEO (or senior staff entirely) AND the lowest ranking members of the company.  Middle managers are the glue that holds these groups of people together.

I could go on forever on this topic and describe to you how this all ties into the Theory of Constraints and The Goal, departmentalizaiton vs. cellularization, etc., but I’ll just give you a few sentences.

Middle managers have their hands tied.  Too often, they are bound to their traditional metrics and methods of thinking.  This leads to production managers and supervisors pushing for their employees and workcenters to be producing at 100% capacity just for the sake of running production and keep uptime on par with traditional company goals.  This just creates over production, mismanaged inventories, misinformed operators, and in the end, a complete resistance to Lean Thinking.  In the end, for too many middle managers, production trumps Lean and Six Sigma because it’s all “ship, ship, ship….this product is a rush….ship, ship, ship”.  It’s rather ironic that all of these managers’ practices are the very nature and source of their need to have a always rushing mentality.

 An open message to all managers:  Study Lean, sign up for seminars or conferences, make an effort to earn that paycheck you receive for your work.  Ignorance is bliss, right?  WRONG.  In manufacturing, ignorance is a sin.  It represents the cognitive acceptance of absolute failure and is ultimately detrimental to your organizations’ success and continued growth.  It’s time for you to quit calling Lean a fad or referring to Lean tools as buzzwords because you are too lazy to better your thinking, better yourselves, better the people that work above and below you, and most importantly, to better your company. 

Lean works.  Lean is right.  Lean is good.

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Comments (1) Posted by matt on Saturday, March 29th, 2008

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