Since the early days as a humble beginner in my first lean implementation in Austria, I was fascinated by a question, that later became the kick off for my doctoral dissertation. How, I wondered, was it possible that production companies could reach a consensus that it was essential to have “state of the art” production system to remain competitive… that an overwhelming number of publications could chart explicit “how to´s” for changing a company towards excellence… that legions of experts could give advice on how to eliminate waste… and yet it was still the case that so many companies simply could not do it successfully – even if they wanted to?
20 years later, after numerous lean assessments including observing painfully poor implementation results, here are some of the most important learnings and common mistakes when striving for excellence and ending up creating waste instead:
- Neglecting the basics
- Expert driven instead every employee is the expert on his/her workplace
- Too much focus on tools
- Neglecting culture
- Hooray a problem
- Failure dilemma
- too little patience & consistency
Operational Excellence Mistake #1: Neglecting the basics
A well-functioning lean system is a very complex combination of many different success factors: structure, tools, mindset, organisational culture, competences, skills, motivated people who feel appreciated and seen, and many more. The result is excellent outcome in operational key performance indicators like safety, quality, productivity, people and finances. Of course, everybody would like to move as quick as possible to this desired outcome. There are no short cuts in this. And unfortunately, the way there leads over some not so sexy and basic tools that need to be trained and practiced first.
The basics of lean are simple tools like 5S, PDCA, simple problem solving, 5 Whys, simple employee-driven improvement suggestions, visual management, etc. To do Value Stream Mapping exercises before you have your 5S and simple problem solving under control, is like trying to run a marathon without knowing how to walk.
Operational Excellence Mistake #2: Expert driven implementation
There is a simple truth in lean: the one performing a task is the expert. No manager, no industrial engineer, no research engineer is better suited to improve a workplace than the one performing an operation on a daily base. Especially in countries with a strong believe in engineering superiority, neglecting this truth unfortunately is the norm rather than the exception.
So instead of having excellence teams “flying in” and improving processes that typically are performed by others, you rather train the ones on the front line in the mindset and tools of waste elimination and performance improvement. This takes more time and training at the beginning, but in the long run it helps you build a self-driven and self-improving operational excellence system.
Operational Excellence Mistake #3: Too much focus on tools
“A fool with a tool is still a fool.” Unfortunately, in a lean context this saying gains even more relevance. The lean toolbox offers a lot of very good and important tools to eliminate waste, improve processes and increase performance: 5S, Kaizen, Problem solving, Kanban, Pokayoke, Andon and many more. Practicing these tools can even be an important driver for transformation. John Shook, the chairman of the Lean Enterprise institute and Toyota´s first American kacho (manager) in Japan once reflected about change towards a lean culture:
“The typical Western approach is to start by trying to get everyone to think the right way. This causes their values and attitudes to change, which, in turn, leads them naturally to start doing the right things. What my Toyota experience taught me that was so powerful was that the way to change culture is not to first change how people think, but instead to start by changing how people behave – what they do.” He concluded that “it is easier to act your way to a new way of thinking, than to think your way to a new way of acting”.
So yes, the skilful practice of relevant lean tools is an important ingredient for success. The problem is that it is relatively easy studying the most relevant lean tools. It is much trickier to grasp the mindset and culture you need to successfully use them. Only in combination and in balance with the culture and people system required, these tools will unfold their full effect. This leads us directly into:
Operational Excellence Mistake #4: Failure to grasp underlying mindset and culture
One of the most crucial mindsets in operational excellence is sometimes a bit hidden in the lean publications and therefore not so obvious for all: respect for people. It is known by few that the early name for the Toyota Production System was the “Respect for Humanity System” and in “The Toyota Way” (which is Toyota´s description of its organizational culture), the term is even mentioned twice within their seven core elements. Besides respect, other important factors to grasp are mutual trust, partnership, appropriate leadership, teamwork and continuous improvement. Obviously, these cultural elements are not as tangible as other lean elements, but build the base for achieving real excellence.
Operational Excellence Mistake #5: Failure to embrace ”Hooray a problem”
This is a tricky one. You probably have heard and maybe also stated yourself, that problems are opportunities for improvements, and no important innovation would have been achieved without somebody suffering from a problem and so on. Still, humans are humans. Nobody really likes to run into a problem. Often this leads to frustration, unsatisfied customers, conflicts and other negative impacts. And still, without accepting and welcoming problems, a real continuous improvement mindset is hard to achieve. You have to take the bad with the good and try to control the negative implications as much as possible. Welcoming problems as opportunities, transparently addressing them (even visualizing them on the shop floor) in a disciplined and structured way are inevitable ingredients.
Operational Excellence Mistake #6: Failure Dilemma
This one is closely connected to Mistake #5. To strive for zero defect or accidents means nothing else but striving for zero failure. At the same time, you want to nurture a climate of openness and transparency, where you make a plan, implement it, and act – if necessary correct – based on the outcome. One could argue that this is a clear-cut trial and error approach. But nothing could be more wrong.
Practicing PDCA is a skilful application of a mindset, where you want to avoid severe failure by taking small steps and constantly training how to efficiently deal with it without causing harm. This contradiction is sometimes very difficult to explain. The necessary balance is to welcome problems (see rule # 5) and failure as important parts of the process, while being well prepared and disciplined to deal with them in a structured and careful way.
Operational Excellence Mistake #7: Flavour of the day implementations
A lot of time has passed since the big rise of lean in the 1990s when Womack & Jones published their ground-braking book “The machine that changed the world”. The world has changed significantly since then and focus has shifted to other important topics like Digitalization, Industry 4.0, Sustainability, 3D printing, Internet of Things, Automation, Artificial Intelligence, Data Management and many more.
Companies need to evolve and develop their customized answers to all these challenges. This takes a lot of effort and resources and sometimes it is hard to also continue working on improving your lean approach and not to think that this is “already done”. It takes years to build and stabilize a well-functioning excellence system. The first challenge is to have the patience to keep going during that time. But the even more challenging part for many companies is to keep pushing for further improvement or go back to basics where needed, to avoid slow deterioration.
If you want to know more about how to avoid the most common mistakes in lean implementation, how to detect and how to deal with it if you got stuck in one of them or simply, how to lift your lean system to the next level – please get in touch 🙂