One reason why so many lean initiatives fail

You've been through it before: the big cheese in the corner office with the reserved parking space decides to jump on lean, spends piles of money on consultants, launches a 5S campaign which is met with enthusiasm, and then. . . it fizzles.

To turn the old adage on its head, failure has many fathers. I won't presume to catalog all of them -- really, how boring is that? -- but I do want to address one: not living lean in all aspects of work.

All too often, lean is applied out there -- to the assembly line, or the medical equipment supply closet, or the insurance underwriting process. But it's not applied at home. It's something to do, not something to live.

The clearest example I can give is an executive whose office is the anti-5S, with papers, files, and other crap strewn about. But that's just one example, of course. There's the unwillingness to create standard work for oneself, or the lack of visible management for one's own workflow. Not to pick on the bigwigs, but it seems that often they're much better at applying lean rather than living lean.

And while applying lean is certainly necessary, it's not sufficient. Jamie Flinchbaugh wrote a terrific piece over at the LeanBlog about the need to "be first" and lead the change you want:

If you want to see people tackling waste, you can't just encourage it, you must do it yourself. If you want to see people be more frugal and prudent in their spending, then you must give up some things yourself that might be great conveniences but cost money. . . . As with most leadership practices, this isn't only so for executives and managers. Even if you are an individual contributor, you must be first in the changes you want to see.

This echoes something John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, said recently in regards to how he started video blogging for internal communication. He resisted for a long time until the 20-somethings in the company convinced him:

I thought I was very leading-edge in terms of how I communicated. My team just kept pushing, and I finally said, “Why do you want me to do this?” And they said: “John, if you don’t do it our company won’t learn how to do this. It won’t be built into our DNA for the way we interface with customers, our employees. The top has to walk the talk.” I was expecting text blogging and we did video blogging. The first one was a little bit uncomfortable, because it’s very unprofessional. You just basically put a camera there, and you go. By the second one, I realized this was going to transform communications — not just for the C.E.O., but it would change how we do business.

(Chambers isn't exactly the picture of lean leadership, by the way. In the same interview, he describes himself as "a command-and-control person. I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right." So much for leading as though you have no authority.)

What would it mean to the company to have the CEO live lean? To have office 5S as a part of his life? To understand the inefficiency of multitasking, and therefore to have standard work that eliminates the expectation that everyone answer email within two minutes of receiving it? To level the flow of work he delegates so that employees aren't overburdened?

I realize that these are not elements of lean that most companies focus on. Usually, the emphasis is on the big ticket stuff, like reducing machine downtime or shortening process lead time. But I'm convinced that to drive a successful lean transformation, lean ideas have to permeate every aspect of the way people think and act. They have to live it.

This is why Toyota is happy to give tours to competitors: as one of their top guys once said (and I paraphrase here, because I can't find the original quote), "what our competitors need to learn they cannot see by coming to our plants." I think what he meant is that visitors can only see the tools on display -- they can't (or are unwilling to) see the way that everyone lives lean.

Obviously, there are other factors in determining the success or failure of your organization's lean initiative. But it's worth thinking about whether top management is doing what they need to do to make it work. As Jamie Flinchbaugh says, when clients tell him that management is 100% behind them: "Behind is still behind. Leadership is about being out in front."