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When is the best time to start a Lean journey?

When is the best time to start a Lean journey?

There are three typical times that a company starts a Lean journey.

  1. The company is in a crisis and looks to Lean to bail it out of a mess.
  2. The company is doing well and comes across Lean as a way to continue its success.
  3. The company hires someone with Lean experience who helps it gain a foothold.

Each of these situations has some pros and cons associated with starting under those circumstances.

Starting Lean in a Crisis

When a company is experiencing a crisis, they have the big benefit of team members knowing that they are in trouble if they don’t do something different. When people are comfortable, they tend to be more resistant to change. If they feel that their jobs might be at risk, they are likely to be more receptive to a new way of doing things.

The downside is that the company is probably strapped for both time and money. While Lean looks for low-cost solutions and advocates thinking through problems rather than spending through them, there is still a cost. Whether it is for training materials, to set up a workshop, for bins and Velcro, or to hire people experienced in Lean, there is a cost associated with a transition. It can be substantially harder to get things right on a shoestring budget.

Time is also an issue. It can take years to fully develop a continuous improvement culture. If it is rushed, the structure tends to be fragile, and is easily toppled. This can happen as the crisis wanes.

Starting Lean When Things Are Good

When the company is doing well, the situation is reversed. There is plenty of time and money, but team members may not understand the changes. It can send mixed messages if a leader announces record profits one week and a Lean initiative the next. For some companies, the workforce recognizes that success comes from staying ahead of the pack by trying new things. For others, though, success can breed complacency and inertia.

The Lean Infusion

The last situation often happens by chance. Sometimes a person with Lean experience is brought in specifically in support of the previous two cases, but more often than not, the injection of Lean in this manner is unintentional. All the company realizes is that the new employee has demonstrated success in the past. They may not necessarily be making the hire with the intention of becoming Lean. That new hire, especially in management roles, then proceeds to make substantial gains by using Lean principles. Others take notice, and the continuous improvement culture begins to take root.


As you can see, each starting point has its own set of pros and cons. What that means is that there is no real ‘best’ time to start on a Lean journey. The first example is probably the most common. The second tends to be more successful, and the third doesn’t require high-level leadership to get things moving.

All three cases, though, do require strong leadership commitment once things get rolling. So, with that in mind, the short answer to the question “When is the best time to start a Lean journey?” is once the senior leadership team fully commits. Regardless of how change is sparked, it needs strong leadership to keep it going.

Practical Guide to Continuous Improvement

An audio version of this FAQ is included in the follow section of this volume of our Nuts & Bolts Guide to Continuous Improvement:


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