Succeeding with Lean: 4 Tips for Long-Term Improvement

By Mike Niedenthal on July 20, 2016

Over the years of observing companies implement Lean and other continuous improvement programs, we have seen that for many companies, maintaining the momentum of a continuous improvement program for longer than a few months can be challenging. In fact, nationwide, only slightly more than one-third of Lean improvement programs sustain meaningful and measurable results beyond a 1-year period, according to the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Michigan.  Unfortunately, this finding is true for Kansas companies, too.

In spite of this sobering statistic, achieving positive, permanent change is definitely within reach for those who design a program that positions them for success from the start.  In our experience, we have found that companies that sustain Lean improvements over the long term share a few common characteristics.  Here are what we consider to be the most important:

They have a clear vision of where they want to be in 3-5 years. The vision includes clearly defined performance measures that management intends to achieve. This clarity enables the work force to visualize the connection between their work and the business objectives of the company. These measurements are tied together so individual departments can see how each is performing—eliminating the “silo mentality” of setting independent goals that don’t support the overall business objectives.

They know that Lean is a growth strategy, not a cost-cutting measure. Lean does not mean “Less Employees Are Needed.” While any long-term continuous improvement effort must focus on the bottom line, Lean is about building strategic capabilities that enable your company to do things others in your industry can’t. Implementing Lean methods to reduce costs or, even worse, reduce payroll, is a recipe for failure.

They engage the work force, providing support and incentives for employees’ best efforts. Companies that are successful with Lean empower the entire work force to take ownership of their work areas and responsibilities. They establish “Nike zones,” giving workers authority to implement changes without waiting for approvals—they can “just do it.”  This promotes a culture in which everyone—from senior leadership to line worker—continuously looks for opportunities to improve.

They understand that sustaining continuous improvement long-term is much more than introducing a set of tools and techniques. When adopting new technical capabilities like Lean Manufacturing, these companies develop a knowledgeable and engaged work force that can prioritize problems and determine which technical capability (or tool) will fix the most pressing issues. In other words, they want their work force to not only have the best tools, but know how and why to use them.

So, this is our challenge to you.  If you find sustaining even small improvement efforts difficult, or even worse, failing, look yourself in the mirror and ask, “Does my company lack these characteristics?” If your answer is “yes,” then continuing down the path you are on will not get you where you need to go.  Don’t join those whose improvement efforts fail after a few months.  We have helped others, who, like yourself, have had to re-think their improvement efforts.  Give us a call, we can help you, too.