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Sustaining Lean

Updated on October 23, 2014

The Hard Question

I have seen some great Lean conversions in my career, and I have seen some bad implementations of Lean at the same rate. No matter what company I benchmark or join, I see the same problems over and over. The problem seems to be very apparent when entering work areas that have good conversions or bad conversions. The problem is sustaining. Why is it so hard to sustain what we build or change in our work places?

Change for the Good

On our Lean journey, we walk in the shadows of the founders of the concepts we implement in our work areas. The voices of Henry Ford and Kiichiro Toyoda are guiding us through lessons we learn during our implementations of Lean. Our teachers speak the same words as the founders once did during the time when Lean concepts where first being spoken by these great founders. The words inspire us and drive us to new heights in implementation. One sentence plays over and over in my head as I implement Lean concepts in my work place, "Change for the good".

"Change for the good", make sense to me, but why is it good if we fall back to doing what we did before? Change at that point becomes an anchor. We change a process or an area for the good, and within a month or two we find the team has gone backwards with the changes that were once good. At that point the changes are then perceived to be bad. This change becomes grueling and painful overtime. This type of change puts a bad taste in the team's mouth, and it creates a culture that knows it is OK to go backwards once great strides forward are made. Is this what lean is? Is this why we spend so much money month after month implementing change, to only back pedal into what we knew before the change?

No! Change is for the good, so we should always try and build a way for the team to keep the changes we worked so hard for during our change events. These events cost our company money and time. We can always make more money, but we will never get back time. There has to be a way to build sustaining plans into our changes to help our, "change for the good", stick around longer than a couple of months.

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When you change a work area layout, is it sustained over time?

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The Iceberg

It's Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Lets imagine an iceberg floating in the middle if the ocean. Lets imagine that iceberg has about ten feet floating above water. That tip of the iceberg will represents all of the Lean techniques, Lean tools, Lean methods, and Lean processes that we use today in implementing Lean in our work places. These lean concepts were taught to us as the fundamentals of Lean. We look to to these tools to answer all of questions when we face problems in our implementation processes in our work place. We have seen these tools used time after time with great results. Once these tools are implemented, we feel good about the changes we made and we allow the team to work with the new concepts and tools in the area that we have changed. That's only the tip of the iceberg.

The Tip of the iceberg only makes up about 20% of the total iceberg. The same applies to Lean. The Lean tools and techniques only make up about 20% of the to Lean methodology. The tools, methods, techniques, and processes are just a small, but important, piece of the puzzle. When we only apply the tools in our implementation process, we often find that our teams drift back to the original state of the work area or processes that were change at some point for the better.

Now, let's continue imagining about that iceberg again. Only this time lets imagine the entire iceberg. Lets imagine about what is hiding under that 20% tip that seems to just be floating out in the middle of that ocean. Imagine that below that tip under the ripples of the ocean waves hitting the iceberg there is a large mass of ice that looks like a large cylinder building hidden in the darkness of the murky deep blue see. In our scale of the iceberg it would be fifty feet down from the top of the water. This fifty feet makes up 80% of the total iceberg.

In Lean that 80% would be our Lean behaviors, mindsets, assumptions, habits, unwritten rules, and culture. Thats a big part of Lean that is often forgotten when we are implementing change in our work places. Why is the biggest part of Lean forgotten? How could 80% of a methodology be lost during our implementations?

This is a big deal. This is also a big reason we have trouble sustaining the changes we make in our work places. It is very easy for us to use Lean tools to change processes or layouts, but it is extremely difficult to convert or implement change surrounding culture, mindsets, and behaviors.

The easy road out for us is to work with the 20% portion of the iceberg, but we need to remember that the 80% of the iceberg is just below that surface, and eventually once you chip away at that 20% for a while, you will see that 80% monster surface before your eyes. Once that 80% surfaces, you will need to work twice as hard to chip away at it as it makes up a majority of the iceberg (Lean).

Discipline or Regret

The Pain of Regret or the Pain of Discipline?

Lean Leaders in our work place are constantly learning through observations, studying through implementation, and working through regret. Regret is a necessary evil when working in a lean environment. We often need to learn lessons through missing targets and missing deadlines in life to truly understand how to deal with the problems we face daily. This is where we learn about the pain of regret. After dealing with the pain of regret for years, we often come to a realization that we need to start dealing with the pain of discipline in order to sustain what we worked so hard to change.

The pain of discipline comes at a price of time and more time. We need to allow ourselves time to follow up on the changes we make during our Lean journey. These changes took time, money, and resources to implement. We need to allow for time to check on these implementations, and we need to allow our teams time to follow up as well. This is how we start to deal with the pain of discipline, rather than dealing with the pain of regret.

When we force ourselves to do something that we do not want to do, we are showing examples of discipline to our team members. When we allow are teams time to do things they don't want to do to sustain a process or area that was changed, we start to change that team's mentality and culture. This pain of discipline becomes a daily habit, but leaders need to continually hold these teams accountable in order for the discipline to be sustained by that team over a long period of time. This becomes another painful discipline, but one that will avoid the pains of regrets.

When we talk about changing cultures, behaviors, and habits related to Lean implementation, our changes become more applicable to be sustained. Remember 80% of the Lean journey is the culture will build within our walls. It is the behavior will instill in our workers. It is the habits we form that that drive us to the next levels of our journey. Our ultimate goal is to go forward in our journey. Once we take a step back wards, that's ok, but we then need to take two steps forward to make up and gain ground. That is the foundation that will change the culture to be able to sustain our changes throughout our Lean journey.


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