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A Section from "The Continuous Improvement Development Guide"

Volume 1: Introduction & Exploration >

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Should We Become Lean?

Basic Section Information

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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Detailed Section Information

There is a big difference between considering developing a Lean production system and actually pulling the trigger to start creating it. The problem is that there are a tremendous number of unknowns in the cost/benefit analysis, so it is hard to feel comfortable with the results.

This is even more true if your key leadership team has not been in charge of a continuous improvement culture in the past.

Making the decision to become Lean should not be taken lightly. There is a tremendous amount of work over an extended period of time that your team will have to do. And as mentioned earlier, nearly three quarters of companies that start on a Lean journey do not get everything out of it that they expected.

Some will get close to their lofty expectations, and as a result, will still come out ahead. Many, though, will invest considerable resources just to eventually end up abandoning their Lean efforts.

So, why should you, knowing the odds are against you, invest your time, energy, and money into developing a continuous improvement program? Well, the bottom line is that if you are successful, the rewards are pretty amazing. Get it right, and you will can see a few percentage points (or more) extra on your profit margin, and a significant increase in your sales. You’ll have more satisfied employees as well.

The question about becoming Lean (or creating any improvement oriented production system) is not really one of whether the gains are there. It probably goes without saying that if you don’t believe that there are gains to be made by adopting Lean in your organization, then you probably won’t be taking the leap.

The real dilemma is for those that believe Lean has potential. Their decision to take on this challenge really lies in whether they believe they can actually fulfill the promise of Lean. If you fall into this camp—those that believe in the potential of Lean—then you should ask yourself the following questions when deciding whether or not to take the plunge.

1. How flexible is your company?

If you have a rigid hierarchy or a lot of red-tape in your company, you will be hard pressed to create a continuous improvement culture. This is common in companies that have an owner that is set in his or her ways. It is also frequently seen in union workplaces that limit the types of work an individual can do, or how they can be managed. Lean might not be a good fit if these barriers are insurmountable.

To be clear, Lean can function, and even flourish in union environments. It just needs agreement in advance on what is and what is not acceptable.

2. What is your history of success with other initiatives?

Prior results are a good indicator of future success. If your company has a junkyard full of old initiatives, you will have to do some soul-searching to assess what went wrong and if you think you can overcome those problems with your Lean efforts.

If you see those failures as systemic, try to…

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This is a chicken or the egg situation. It is unlikely that your company will assign a program leader prior to deciding to take on the development of an improvement oriented business system. It is equally unlikely that you will take developing that system on without a champion with the authority to drive change (and get barriers removed).

Most companies, fortunately, tend to have an idea of who the program leader will be, even before it is formally decided. If that person is not you, try to get the potential candidates involved in the decision to commit.

Keep in mind that…

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  • Don’t waste time. If your key leadership team doesn’t believe in the power of Lean/continuous improvement oriented business management systems, then your decision is already made.
  • Don’t rush right in. Take some time to figure out your risks and then decide if the timing is right. A good business management system can take care of a lot of problems. If you have too many warning signs, though, fix some of them before moving on.

  • Even if you believe in the positive benefits of a continuous improvement oriented business management system, you still need to decide if it is right for you.
  • There are several questions to consider before taking the leap to Lean. These questions are predictors of future success.

Supporting Content and Additional Information

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