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This Lean blog is dedicated to providing useful Lean information that both changes the way you think about continuous improvement, and gives you tools to act on those changes. It is the only blog backed by The Continuous Improvement Companion, our extensive Lean reference guide.

There is no specific ‘Next Step’ at this point in Phase 1. People explore Lean in their own ways. We encourage you to continue to learn as much as you can to get to the point where you decide to move forward and can start taking concrete steps.

The decision to become Lean, or to embrace any continuous improvement philosophy for that matter, is not to be taken lightly. While the results can be incredible, about three out of every four companies do not achieve the results that they expected when they began their Lean journey.

In addition, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to change the DNA of a company. And make no mistake. That is what you need to do if you want to create a culture of continuous improvement. So, it’s going to take a lot of work and there is still a three in four chance that you won’t get what you want out of it. Why, then, should you, or anyone, take on the challenge of becoming Lean?


Make sure you understand the benefits of Lean prior to deciding if the transition is right for you. This lesson is about assessing your organization for potential pitfalls. You need a good feel for what the upside is before assessing obstacles.

Section Details

Estimated Time for Section: Varies, depending upon the level of assessment/discussion you need to do in your specific situation.

Difficulty: High

Risk: High

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We have a complete Lean Overview module in Volume 2, but it is hard to make a decision to move forward without at least a cursory introduction to the specifics of Lean.

This section is a summary of our Lean overview, and is intended to provide you with some information so you know what you are getting yourself into.

We’ve put a lot of terms (with links) into the discussion below. Don’t spend too much time following them, though. As you progress through later sections of this practical guide, you’ll be introduced to them at the appropriate time. They are just included here so you can look deeper into the terms that might have you on the fence about whether to commit to continuous improvement or not.

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There is a bit of a misconception in the Lean community about the value that consultants bring to the table in terms of helping with specific projects. The consensus view is that consultants provide expertise and knowledge to their clients. This is true, but they provide a great deal more than that.

The problem is that those extras that they are providing are generally things that people can, and should, be doing on their own. The list below includes many of these things that hiring an outsider provides that a business, even one with limited continuous improvement expertise, can do without getting help.

(Note that this list focuses on larger, cross-functional projects. You should still be making lots of little improvements every day.)


Continuous improvement is far too often a back burner activity. It is done when all of the production work is complete. Unfortunately, as most of you know, production work is never done. Even when something is on the calendar, as the date creeps closer, it is simple matter to push it back. Having a consultant on the calendar makes it much harder and costlier to change.

You can replicate this to a degree internally. If you create a continuous improvement calendar, and assign resources, the truth is that it will be just a piece of paper. But if you require top level approval to change the calendar, it becomes more difficult to do so. Eventually, you want to get rid of any kind of bureaucratic administrative work such as this, but in the short term, it sends a message that it is not OK to miss planned dates.


Companies have a lot of improvement ideas. They often, though, skip the step of prioritization and get too many things on their plate. Then they spread resources out among multiple projects, delaying results for all of them. This also dilutes the talent on the teams. When a company brings a consultant in, they tend to assign their best and brightest to the project and send it to the front of the line with the most resources. Obviously, they will select the most important projects to get this attention.

A coordinated calendar can help, but again, there may be limited benefit if it is just a piece of paper. If, however, it is owned by a value stream manager, there is more emphasis on what is good for the whole team. Prioritization is, by definition, unequal, and can create bad feelings. Hard decisions require strong leadership.

  1. FOCUS

Prioritization addresses what to do first. Focus is more about what NOT to do. Companies get long lists of ideas, and start chasing squirrels. They get easily distracted and run around trying to do every little project that attracts their attention. Unfortunately, those projects often have low return on investment. Consultants give leaders a reason to say no in a way that they otherwise might not.

Be realistic about what projects have a chance. Make a list and limit how long it can be, or assign points to projects and cut off the list that don’t have enough. Make sure that points are not unlimited, or everything will be deemed important. The key is to say no to the things that have the lowest bang for the buck.


There is a well-known phenomenon called the ‘Hawthorne Effect‘ in which teams and people perform better when they know they are being observed. Consultants tend to generate that response in people. It is further amplified, not because they care about what the consultant thinks, but because team members know that the company leadership will pay attention to what the consultant is doing.

If a leader paid the same attention to a team without a consultant, the impact would be similar. I worked with two different companies that used Shingijutsu consultants, rather pricey Japanese consultants with links to the early days of Toyota’s Lean efforts. Both companies did daily leaders meetings and an end-of-the-week report out regardless of whether there was a consultant. Which do you suppose had better attendance? Bottom line is that people perform better when they know it matters enough to leaders to show up. Of all the factors on this list, this is by far the easiest. Leaders…go to project meetings, especially the end of the week report out.


When a leader is going to write a big check, she asks more questions. These questions often have unknowns associated with them. When it is an internal project, we often rush blindly into it. When there is a consultant coming, we tend to get answers before we commit.

Project planning processes and checklist go a long way towards preventing this problem. Make a data collection gate where preliminary information must be collected prior to moving forward.


Closely related to questions is goal setting. Think of a project to improve on time delivery. Failing to ask questions means that we might not know what the current rate is, or where the problems are. But even once we know those things, we often do projects without setting clear goals that we will hold ourselves to. When a consultant comes in, goals are a big deal. Companies want to get more back than they paid, so they evaluate how effective the consultant was in making change.

This seems relatively simple—set goals before a project, right? Well, there is more to it than that. You have to make sure that the goals are SMART, and that they don’t change when there is an obstacle that pops up. I recommend posting goals and progress for projects. Make sure that any changes are apparent, with an explanation. If it is OK to simply change a number, it masks that goals are not real.

  1. RIGOR

It is hard to find a person even remotely interested in continuous improvement who does not see the value of following a process on the factory floor. When you ask those same people to create a project team to solve a problem, any semblance of a process often goes out the window. A consultant, on the other hand, likely has a process that that they ask you to follow in both planning for a project and in actually doing the work.

Put a process in place for improvement projects that require a team. You should be doing quick little daily improvements on the fly, but as the project gets bigger, a process prevents waste.


When teams do projects, they often leap into action on their own. They don’t communicate what they want to do to the rest of the organization. As a result, they often duplicate effort, or work at odds with each other. When a consultant is used, companies generally talk about what is going to happen more, and as a result, more people get involved in the conversation.

This is a relatively easy item to fix. Make sure that project plans and schedules are posted. Also, include a review of the plan in operations reviews (monthly meetings).


Many projects fail because teams scramble for the materials and tools that they need. They often end up trying a less effective alternative when they give up scrounging for the needed materials. Consultants generally have a good understanding of what might be needed and can direct a team to have certain materials on hand and the necessary tools available.

If you want to be a company that focuses on continuous improvement, you need to commit to it. That means creating project spaces stocked with tools and materials. Do it once, and you’ll have it for all future projects.


Companies often act as a collection of many little organizations. When you bring a consultant in, they may work with several teams at once. It is not a big leap to get them working together, often to the point of having complementary projects or shared training.

Good planning calendars and strong processes lead to teams sharing effort. In many cases, just talking about problems openly and regularly drives this cooperation. Monthly operations reviews and continuous improvement steering committees are both good forums for this coordination.


When I worked as an internal consultant or as a manger running a project, I have frequently had team members pulled off my team at the last minute. As an external consultant, it is very uncommon for a manager to come into a project and take a person out for an extended duration, and even more rare for a person to be pulled from the project team altogether, especially after they were involved in the planning.

This long term answer is that project time must be factored into the staffing equation. If leaders treat it as extra work, their teams will not see CI as a priority. There needs to be some capacity to work on projects built into the headcount. I even recommend that a resource team is created to have people to support projects and backfill for employees that are on teams.


As a consultant, I am expected to know stuff. For most projects, especially those early in a team’s development, the information I give is pretty fundamental. Many of the people on the teams I coach are already pretty well-versed in Lean. I saw the same thing when I was an employee at a company working with external consultants. They tried not to flood us with high level concepts until we got the basics down, so we had a lot of people who already knew what the consultants were advocating. Sometimes, though, it takes hearing it from an outsider to believe it.

There is the old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt.” This applies here. If you are doing something revolutionary or making a major overhaul, it makes sense to bring in a consultant. But if you are spreading a proven concept to a new work area, you’ll need to get a track record of success to build internal credibility. That means numerous projects with a concerted effort to create internal expertise. If you want to be a strong company with a continuous improvement culture, you’ve absolutely got to develop internal Lean talent.


There is a term called ‘kamikaze kaizen‘ or ‘drive-by kaizen‘ that basically means that the project is unconnected to anything relevant. Any consultant worth using will ask about the big picture. They’ll want to know why this project is important and how it fits into the big picture. In effect, they want to see where this project fits into the roadmap to get you where you want to go.

Over and over, I tell people to start their continuous improvement efforts with policy deployment. The reason people don’t use a roadmap in planning is more often than not, because one does not exist. Get one.


Backsliding is one of the greater risks of projects. A team comes in and makes some changes, but leaves a few key things unfinished. If the get done, things would get better, but interim steps become permanent very quickly, especially if there is no follow-up. Consultants, at least the good ones, check in to make sure those follow-up activities are being worked on.

There is no secret sauce here. Leaders just need to mark follow-up dates on their calendar and then actually go out and ask about status. They also need to be firm about not letting dates slide. Follow-up is useless if due dates are optional.


People tend to be starved for leadership. They may go days or weeks without seeing a boss above their direct supervisor. Consultants show up or they don’t get paid. Bosses, on the other hand, are conspicuously absent far too often.

Again, no big secret on how to fix this. Leaders need to show up. If there is a kick-off event, show up. During the project, show up unannounced. At leaders’ meetings, show up. At report outs, show up. Obviously, that is not all there is to it, but showing up is the first step.

As a consultant, there is absolutely value I can provide in creating a culture, helping avoid mistakes, charting a path, and getting people started on doing independent projects. If you are considering hiring a consultant, or are already using one regularly, look over this list and think about why you are bringing that person in. If you need help because you don’t know how to do something, that’s a good reason to get help. If you have tried something a few times and haven’t solved the problem, that’s a good reason to get help rather than just beating your head against something. If you have a big risk of failure and want a second opinion, again, by all means, call for help.

But if the issue is that you are passing the things in the list along to a consultant, you are going to have an uphill battle at creating a continuous improvement culture.

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One of the mistakes companies make when they try to create a business system or develop a continuous improvement culture is that they focus on the wrong things. They scrutinize behaviors. They spend their energy reacting to unexpected results. They bounce from tool to tool trying to find a fix for their problems.

What they often overlook, though, is that fact that their employees are often not guided by unifying principles. There is no clear corporate identity. Guiding principles are like beacons for the team, and create continuity as people come and go.

The following list of principles comes from our continuous improvement transformation model. It breaks the progress from an ordinary company to a world-class one into six phases. Each of these phases requires the adoption of certain principles to successfully navigate through it. While this is a fairly long list of principles, they are rolled out over an extended period. By the time you move to the next phase, living by the previous principles should have become a habit.


In the committing phase, the key leaders of an organization turn the corner from accepting business as usual to choosing a new path. It is one of the most difficult of the phases because it entails accepting that there is a flaw in the way the business is currently being run, or at least that there is a better way to do things.

  • Build RelationshipsIn the later phases, it is imperative that team members and the leaders in the organization work together. It takes a long time to cultivate a strong relationship, so the groundwork has to be laid early in the process of change.
  • Develop Trust: An integral part of relationships is trust. It is important enough to warrant a separate principle. Team members have to feel safe and confident in their bosses. Leaders have to believe that team members will act in the best interest of the organization.
  • Develop Leaders InternallyGreat organizations push themselves. Weak leadership results in a lack of stretch goals, and an inability to successfully reach them, regardless of how demanding they are. Strong leadership gives an organization purpose and direction.
  • Show Respect for PeopleFirst of all, treating employees respectfully is the right moral thing to do. After all, employees are people. They are not bodies, heads, etc. But beyond that it is good for business. Respect breeds satisfaction, and satisfaction breeds success.
  • Think Long TermFar too often, people think in a short timeline and don’t invest in the future. Creating a strong business system takes time and requires patience.
  • Embrace Facts and Data: You can’t effectively improve without a deep understanding of things. Far too often, decisions are based on opinion and create conflict. Facts and data create clarity and alignment.


There is an old expression that says even the longest journeys begin with a single step. The same is true when developing a continuous improvement culture. You won’t immediately reach your destination. This phase transitions the leadership team from deciding to acting and sets the tone for your Lean journey.

  • Look WithinThere is a tendency to focus on external factors and other people when facing barriers and obstacles. It is important to look at yourself first. This remains important throughout the development of a business system. The performance bar is continually raised. If you continue to operate at a static level, you will eventually become a barrier to progress.
  • Align the TeamIt should come as no surprise that great organizations have a unity of effort. Leadership tools like policy deployment and operations reviews are the tools for getting the team working together. The guiding principles on this list, though, are the bedrock of that alignment.
  • Avoid BureaucracyOrganizations without strong principles need lots of rules and policies to get things done. When you have a strong belief system, you need less bureaucracy to be effective.
  • Invest WiselyContinuous improvement is not free. It is an investment in the same way that buying a rental property has an upfront cost. Eventually, if you do the right things, you’ll get a payoff. But it is important to make sure that everything you spend has a purpose and will contribute to your overall goals. One of the best investments you will make when developing your business system is in people.
  • Know Your Customers and What They ValueIt is impossible to be successful in the modern, competitive world without understanding what your customers want and are willing to pay for. Pay close attention to the Voice of the Customer (VOC).


There are some key skills that your team will require as you develop your business system. You’ll also need some basic structure and systems. The focus of this phase is developing the required talent and building a Lean infrastructure.

  • Focus on Processes: Processes are the lifeblood of any business system. If people do things in a haphazard manner, you can’t expect consistent results. And without consistent results you cannot rely upon each other.
  • Learn to LearnPeople have three basic problems when it comes to learning. The first is that they don’t know what they don’t know. The second is that when they do see a knowledge gap, they tolerate it. The final problem is that they don’t know how to close the gap when they do identify it as a shortcoming.
  • Build and Empower TeamsIf you can replace your team with a robot, you’re not using people properly. Strong teams have the proper training to make decisions in the absence of leaders.
  • Create StructureCreating a business system based on a continuous improvement culture needs the right framework within which it can operate effectively. This structure doesn’t happen by accident. It needs to be planned and maintained for the business system to flourish.
  • Embrace SimplicityWe often confuse technology with effectiveness. Now, technology is fine when it makes things better, but technology for its own sake is not. Look for the simplest solution first, even if it is not as exciting as other options.


Once the foundation is built, it is time to start building upon it. In the early part of the ramp up, you’ll probably focus on cultivating talent (though you will still need to deliver results). While that sort of focus on skills growth never goes away, by the end of the ramp up phase, most people on your team should have at least some continuous improvement experience. At that point, there will be a subtle shift from learning and teaching as the priority to a greater focus on results. Learning should not go away, but there will be a change in the ratio of how time is spent.  Note that this phase can take a number of years. It is important to be patient.

  • Structure Your ThinkingPeople need to think scientifically. That means that they gather and interpret facts about a problem before acting. This way of thinking is unnatural for many people. In the early days of humanity, fight or flight were the two basic responses when cavemen were presented with a problem. The decision had to be made quickly and was based upon what one had seen before. Modern problem-solving, though, tends to be ineffective when done with snap decisions.
  • Focus on FlowEvery time works sits it creates a problem. It takes more energy and effort to manage it, and customers wait longer to get what they want.
  • Create StandardsContinuous improvement requires a baseline the start and the ability to recognize abnormal conditions. This means that you have to have standards in place. Without them, there is no foundation upon which to improve.
  • Manage Your Value StreamCompanies often erect artificial barriers within the organization. They arrange their functions as silos. That makes it hard to create value for customers. Instead, the company should be arranged by value stream.
  • Improving Your Job is Part of Your JobCompanies turn the corner on their CI journey when employees start taking responsibility to make their own job better. In typical organizations, changes in work are driven by managers. When continuous improvement is part of the company’s DNA, people become dissatisfied with waste in their work and take action to do something about it.

Phase 6: Keeping Momentum

The risk during Phase 6 is complacency. Once the company gathers steam, it has to keep it. Don’t confuse this phase for steady state, though. The improvement trajectory should still be steep. It is just that it is using well-established systems with highly trained people. The stability of this phase also allows for greater experimentation with more sophisticated tools.

  • Build in QualityEvery company understands the quality is important to their customers. Most, though, inspect it into their products. Great Lean companies build quality into them.
  • Adopt a Zero Defects MentalityThis is a tricky principle. No company has ever achieved perfect quality. But that does not mean you shouldn’t strive for zero defects. It is a mentality more than a goal, and it results in localized pockets of excellence. Get enough of those pockets, though, and quality ends up being pretty great.
  • Strengthen Your SystemsSystems put tools into context. They also make sure that you understand how a change in one place will impact operations in another. Good systems also reduce the day-to-day effort required to run an operation.
  • Build Full EngagementEmployee engagement is actually the result of many other factors. Engaged employees, make customers happier, take the initiative more, contribute to higher morale, and make systems work better. The bottom line is that employee engagement helps the bottom line.
  • Monitor ProcessesIt is important to manage operations and solve problems with actual facts and data. You don’t get that information unless you monitor processes. Pay attention to that word choice. Make the distinction between scrutinizing people and tracking processes.

Phase 7: World-Class Performance

Few companies will make the leap from Phase 6 to Phase 7. First of all, it is hard to uncover the subtle distinctions between a very good company and a great one. Secondly, even if you know what to do, it can be extremely difficult to actually accomplish it. Winning isn’t easy.

  • Expect to WinThere is a fine line between confidence and overconfidence. Top-performing companies know that they have the right team and systems to take on the competition and beat them.
  • Think BigThe companies that have changed the world, or at least their industry, have always done it with great leaps forward. With a strong business system in place, an organization opens up more possibilities.

About this article: This article is part of “The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Continuous Improvement.” This practical guide to Lean takes a phased approach to creating strong business systems to create a culture of continuous improvement in your organization.

In each phase of your development, we introduce a handful of new principles to integrate into your corporate DNA. These principles are presented here in a rule format, but they are actually derived from ‘natural laws’ of business. For example, ‘Structure Your Thinking’ comes from the natural law that organized problem solving efforts tend to generate less waste and produce better results than snap judgements. Unlike values that are company dependent, these principles hold true across companies and industries.

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World-class companies take on projects that change the world. That’s not to say they engage in fantasy projects. But their confidence lets them take on game-changing projects that others would not even attempt.

Progress in the world is a mixture of evolutionary change and revolutionary leaps forward. World-class companies are well positioned to exhibit the grand thinking that changes the world.


CI Transformation Principles are the guiding rules that apply to all companies that are trying to make changes. They are similar to natural laws. Learn more about how principles guide your Lean journey in our entry on ‘Principles and Values.’

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About the Gotta Go Lean Blog

The Gotta Go Lean Blog focuses on Lean at the front line. We help managers and employees work together to make Lean more productive for the company, and jobs more satisfying for workers.

To help you make your continuous improvement efforts more effective, our Lean blog offers a variety of different types of articles. You may see traditional articles, Lean terminology, videos, and podcasts.

We like to think the Gotta Go Lean Blog is unique in its style and content, but we also stand apart from other Lean blogs in one major way. We link our content to The Continuous Improvement Companion,our award-winning online reference guide, so you are never without detailed information about the topics we talk about.

So read a few of our articles to make sure you like our style (you can find previous articles here), and then sign up at the top of this page to get the Gotta Go Lean Blog delivered right to your inbox.

Finally, we want the Gotta Go Lean Blog to be a community for like-minded Lean thinkers. We'd love to hear from you in the comments section of our blog posts.

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