Real Leaders

Ask These 5 Critical Questions Before Committing to Lean Thinking

Here’s how to avoid the most common mistakes and stack the deck in your favor.

Many companies turn to lean thinking and practices in hopes of achieving breakthroughs in efficiency, profitability, and customer satisfaction. Too many, however, fail in their attempts. What began with a bang ends in a whimper, leaving executives and business owners feeling frustrated and disappointed.

Moreover, such failures dissuade other leaders from even considering lean in their own companies. If you’re one of them, we have good news: With the right preparation, you can avoid the most common mistakes and stack the deck in your favor.

To begin, work with your leadership team or closest advisers to ask five critical questions.

1. Is lean right for us right now?

While lean can undoubtedly help a company, it isn’t right for every business, every time. For instance, if your business is losing ground due to outdated or second-rate products, start improving your product line first. Or if market demand is declining — as it may be now, for example, amid the current COVID-19 pandemic — think about a diversification or marketing initiative instead.

By contrast, lean might be a great fit if your business has significant efficiency or effectiveness issues. Perhaps customer demand exceeds capacity, lead times are lagging behind the competition, or costs exceed what the market will bear.

Takeaway: Fit and timing are essential to lean success.

2. Are we up to adhering to lean’s core conditions?

Lean can work with almost any leadership style and work culture if — and it’s a big if — two core conditions are consistently met: 1) leaders maintain consistency, with no wavering or walking back; and 2) leaders walk their talk with regular and frequent follow-up.

Takeaway: Lean requires a commitment to consistency and support.

3. Are we willing to align our business practices with lean principles?

Like it or not, many of your company’s existing business practices — incentives, metrics, SOPs, and the like — stand an excellent chance of colliding with lean principles. For instance, a lean goal like minimizing work in process inventory can conflict with standard cost accounting. How sales commissions or performance bonuses are structured can be at odds with crucial lean behaviors. The key is to be flexible and reconcile what is currently in place with lean principles, not vice-versa. Otherwise, lean will lose every time.

Takeaway: Lean requires incentives that are consistent with lean principles.

4. Are our expectations about lean and our company’s maturity in sync?

A lean initiative can’t, and won’t, go the distance without managing expectations, especially concerning speed and success versus your company’s overall maturity. For example, if your business is more accustomed to putting out fires than operating smoothly and functionally, be sure to adjust your objectives and timelines with room to spare — thereby allowing for any fits and starts — and fully communicate them with everyone involved. This way, you can head off any angst or uncertainty at the pass.

Takeaway: Be realistic about your company’s maturity and manage people’s expectations about lean accordingly.

5. Which approach to lean would be most compatible with our company?

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to lean. To be successful, it’s incumbent to adopt a lean approach compatible with your business. Each approach — and there are many — offers differing levels of complexity and versatility, making researching and understanding those differences imperative. Besides traditional lean, you’ll find everything from Six Sigma, which emphasizes the use of statistical techniques, to Paul Akers’ “2 Second Lean.”

Takeaway: Do your homework and find a lean approach that fits your company.

Ready? There’s more to lean than asking these five questions, but you can avoid the most common mistakes by addressing them first and thoroughly and stack the deck in your favor.

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