Lean Management Drives Lean

Too often lean is understood as a technique to improve processes. We ignore the other side of the Lean equation. The Lean Management System, which is a system of leadership. For example, I had been invited to facilitate a lean workshop with a large state agency. The division had been hammered during the recession with massive layoffs, forced retirements, huge loss of institutional knowledge but with little reduction in workload. So, for four days I met with 18 front line managers and workers to document their processes, create value stream maps and find ways to eliminate non-value added work.

At the end of the four days, we had two beautiful value stream maps on a wall, we had a beautiful spaghetti diagram that demonstrated that every invoice they paid had to pass through the financial managers desk seven times before it was processed. The last half day we spent designing 4 initiatives that would have significantly reduced the burden of low value work, allowed staff to go home on time, and improve customer value. There was nothing in these initiatives that required funding, or approval from the governor.

It was a Total Failure

At the conclusion one of the participants grabbed the manager by the lapels of his sport coat, lifted him off his feet, and while shaking him said this, if you don’t follow through with this don’t ever ask me to participate in something like this ever again!!! As a professional curtesy we reviewed the project with the Department’s executive leadership. This would also allow them to tell the Governor that they were implementing lean. This is where the projects died. This is also where all of the initiatives died. Not one initiative was ever implemented. They killed them through simple neglect. Why?

Was it the People or the Leadership System?

Where executive leaders stupid? Nope, they included smart people with advanced degrees. Where they unkind and did not care about their staff. Nope, I believe they truly cared for their people. Unfortunately, in 25 years of consulting, I have seen this same thing happen dozens of times. I have also seen the opposite happen dozens of times. I am not alone. By some estimates 90% of all lean initiatives fail to produce any value at all, which means the other 10% must generate spectacular results. What is the problem? Was it the people or the system?

Lean Requires Lean Management

I’ve come to the conclusion it was/is the system or more specifically, the lack of a designed system. A Lean exercise is a simple event if it disconnected to a system of leadership or management designed to support it. It is a temporary fix in a broader set of disconnected systems operating independent of one another. Virginia Mason Medical Center is the world’s leader in the application of Lean in healthcare. They are clear that Lean as a production system is only as good as the management system.