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Getting the Right Lean Resources for a Successful Lean Project

In the final chapter of my book, Grow your Factory – Grow Your Profits: Lean for Small and Medium Sized Manufacturing Enterprises[1] I share a model I have developed for what happens when you try and implement a major change such as Lean Enterprise in your business. This is explained in the graph below.

Lean resources graph for blog

Figure 1 – Graph showing the resource burden during a lean transformation


The challenge for most businesses is that at the start everyone is already very busy dealing with all the chaos and problems caused by not having a lean production system. When the business starts to try to implement improvement, things initially get worse, rather than better. This is because the normal day to day work load of crisis management and firefighting does not go away and the effort to get Lean underway is just more work on the top of that.

Initially (as the graph above shows) there is a “mountain” to climb. At some point the improvements you are making starts to make an impact and the day to day crises start to disappear. At this point you start to see the peak of the “mountain” as your workload starts to level off and eventually drop. However, getting to this point is an achievement that evades many companies. If you stop your improvement effort before you get “over the peak of the mountain” then it is almost certain that any gains you have made will be lost. You will slide back to the bottom of the slope, ending up back where you started. Sadly this happens to many companies that embark upon a Lean transformation journey.

So how do you climb over the peak of the mountain? Clearly it is a question of resources. Simply your business needs to apply enough of the right resources to drive the change forward to the point where where it will start to sustain itself. There are a number of successful and unsuccessful approaches that we see with companies.

The Heroic Approach

Sadly, the least effective strategy for resourcing a lean transformation seems to be one of the most common. That is, going it alone and heroically attempting to drive the transformation forward without dedicated internal and external resources to support the change. I find this particularly common among new appointees to Operations Management roles. Even when the company has already made a commitment to provide external resources, I have frequently seen newly hired Operations Managers insist that they can lead the transformation themselves. The reality is, the role of an Operations Manager is already  a busy one, and a person in that role simply does not have the time to personally act as Lean facilitator and coach as well as running the Operations. The Operations Manager needs to sponsor the change and demonstrate his or her commitment to Lean every day, but they are rarely the best people to actually do the detailed work of implementing a Lean production system. I have seen some highly experienced Lean leaders succeed with this approach, particularly in very small Operations, but overall the success rate is very low – perhaps less than 10%. So don’t try and be a hero – face up to the fact that you are going to need some help in the form of dedicated lean resources to implement Lean successfully.

Developing Internal Lean Resources.

A better approach is to identify a high potential enthusiastic person within your organisation and give them the role. Perhaps you might send them on a few short courses and provide them with some Lean books. Depending on the individual, this approach can work, particularly when the Operations Manager is a strong and experienced Lean Leader and can mentor this person. More often, however, it becomes a very frustrating role. The first problem is organisational. The internal Lean Facilitator is usually a direct report to the Operations Manager or COO and without strong support from the Operations Manager or COO, will often struggle because the people they need to influence do not report to them. Other Line Managers who report to the Operations Manager may see themselves as having other priorities than the Lean project and may be reluctant to dedicate time and resources to support the Lean Facilitator. The second problem is that an internal appointee is unlikely to have experienced a Lean transformation themselves. Without a clear understanding of what success looks like and an ability to anticipate and plan for the likely obstacles to change, the transformation is likely to lack direction and is unlikely to be sustained. That said, this approach can work, when you combine a talented internal appointee with a highly experienced Operations Manager.

Hiring a “Lean Guru”

Another common approach is to hire in a Lean expert with Lean experience. Typically, this means hiring someone out of the Auto industry. Again this approach can work, depending on the individual involved and the support they get from above. However, my experience is that this approach is actually less successful than developing someone internally. The reason is that the newly hired ex-Automotive Lean Facilitator may have a lot of Lean experience, but they will have no knowledge of your industry, no relationships or existing credibility within your organisation and no internal network. As a result they will find it even harder to influence change than someone you might promote or redeploy internally. In addition, the new person may have spent a lot of time working within an excellent Lean production system in an Automotive Plant, but they are likely not to have experienced a Lean transformation, because the Lean production system was probably well established when they joined the Automotive Plant. They will often struggle to understand how to bridge the gap between your company’s current state and the excellent Lean systems that they have experienced. Again this approach to bringing Lean knowhow and Lean resources to your company can work, but, in our experience, has a relatively high risk of failure and usually ends in your “Lean guru” leaving in frustration.

Leave it to the Consultants

Given the challenges of internally resourcing a Lean transformation, and given that I am a Lean Consultant, you might expect me to recommend that the best approach is hiring a Lean consultant. There are a lot of Lean consultants out there and many have off the shelf programs that outline a full roll out of Lean in your company. This might be “Lean Six Sigma” or it might be a proprietary off the shelf approach developed by the consulting company. I call this approach “Lean by Numbers” because it is a bit like painting by numbers. If you follow all the steps and fill in all the parts of a picture you get a kind of Lean production system. Some companies do get value from this approach. However, there are a couple of problems I see. Firstly, it is going to be the Consultant’s methodology and system, their language, their tools rather than your own. Like any standard system, compromises will be made to fit the standard approach to the particular needs of your business.  Often the system ends up being “something we do when we finish our normal work” rather than “the way we do our normal work”. It is then hard to sustain the system once the consulting engagement is finished (a bit like trying to paint the picture again without the outline and the numbers). Secondly it is usually a very expensive approach involving a lot of consulting time. Thirdly, by “leaving it to the consultants” senior management often abrogate their responsibility to actively lead and drive the transformation and fail to change their own behaviours to a Lean leadership approach. They can tell their Board of Directors and Shareholders that they are implementing a Lean program that will deliver cost savings of $X million. However they often don’t expect to get involved or change their own way of leading at all, assuming the consultants will do it all for them – or will they?

Train Everyone

A similar approach, which is very common in Australia, is to put everyone on a Lean training course. The training company will usually run the course in your premises. Government subsidies (in Australia) will mean that the training will not cost much or anything (except your people’s time, which is often a great deal). Everyone will get a “Lean Certificate” and then….. well, not much. Almost every company I visit has attempted some kind of Lean training course or certification. Almost none of them have anything to show for it. This is because Lean change is not just about gaining the know how, it is also about engaging Leadership to drive change and addressing the cultural barriers to change across the organization. There is a very significant element of change management involved in a Lean transformation and training does not deliver this. Like the previous approach, Leadership will often abrogate their responsibility and assume that, because everyone is getting Lean training, the organization will become Lean. It does not happen and “training everyone” ends up being a very time intensive approach that delivers very limited improvement.

Combination Approach

Our view is that the most effective way to resource a Lean Transformation is through a combination of developing internal resources and providing external support from experienced Lean coaches. Developing the internal lean specialists means that your organization will gain the skills to sustain the change and to keep improving. Complementing these individuals with external resources does a number of things. It provides you with the know how in Lean and the experience in leading a Lean transformation. The Lean coach will have experience in change management and should be able to clearly identify the cultural and leadership barriers to change within your organization. They should help you develop strategies to overcome these barriers. As external resources, they are outside the hierarchy of your company, usually appointed by the CEO and therefore able to influence across the organization and at all levels.

Select a Lean Consulting company with a proven track record (check references), it does help if they have experience in your industry or a similar industry, and make sure they are prepared to be flexible to adapt their approach to the needs of your business. Talk to them about the kind of internal resources you plan to allocate to the project and make sure that those individuals are working along the consultant from day one and that effective knowledge transfer is occurring. Finally, be prepared as the business leader to be coached yourself. Your role is critical to the success of the Lean Transformation. A good Lean Consultant/Coach should be able to provide you with individual coaching and feedback on how you can best support your team and the Lean transformation.

Learn More About Leading a Lean Transformation from Our Blog

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[1] Republished from Grow Your Factory – Grow Your Profits: Lean for Small and Medium Sized Manufacturing Enterprises, Productivity Press, New York, 2014