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What Lean Is Really All About

To the person who is recently introduced to it, Lean often appears to merely be a set of tools that helps improve quality and  lower costs while making deliveries faster and more consistent.

But in truth, the tools behind Lean are just solutions to a particular set of problems, and they will only stick around for as long as they make sense. Consider what will happen when someone creates a better way of managing inventory than kanban cards. Those laminated and Velcro-laden wonders that are so effective today will become extinct. I don’t know yet what will replace them, but it is foolish to think that they will still be using them once production facilities are set up on Moon Colony 7. Companies evolve, and being married to a particular process or method is a surefire way to get left behind by the competition.

The point is that tools change continuously. Not only do we improve processes, but the Lean community is also continuously improving the methods we use to make improvements. All the buzzwords that are around today will inevitably fall into disuse over time as the latest and greatest replaces them.

What will not change in successful companies, though, are three things:

  1. Leadership. Great companies have strong leaders. The executives set a strategy, and chart a clear course to get there. Middle managers take on the challenge of rallying teams to take the actions necessary to reach those goals. And even frontline employees step up and take charge when needed, most commonly during daily management or in process improvement projects.
  2. Problem Solving. Problem solving includes more than just coming up with a resolution to the issue at hand. It also involves identifying when things just aren’t right. The recognition of problems is often harder than coming up with a solution to them. This is closely tied to the continuous improvement mindset that keeps people from being complacent with things as they currently are. Companies that constantly challenge the status quo are the ones that thrive.
  3. Change Management & Psychology. Identifying improvements and putting them in place is the easy part. Getting people to follow the new processes while maintaining their job satisfaction is far tougher. Understanding what drives people and managing change well is critical to Lean success.

While it is important to know the Lean tools, it is more important to understand the big picture, and to work to develop the three items in the list above. Put a kanban system or 5S in place, and you will not naturally develop stronger leadership in your organization or get better at dealing with issues. But if you focus on developing problem solving and leadership skills and pay attention to how people feel about the changes, and you’ll be well positioned to try out any of the tools you hear about—today’s or tomorrow’s—with great success.


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