Lean Without the Label

Two shops experiences' suggest that targeted, organic change with clearly defined goals can be more effective than a formal, “one-size-fits-all” approach to improvement.


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When it comes to lean and other improvement initiatives, avoiding formal labels and adopting solutions targeted at specific problems can be a far more effective—and far more palatable—approach to change than a company-wide, “one-size-fits-all” approach. At least, that’s been the experience of two shop managers I recently spoke with, both of whom shall remain anonymous.

The first had asked me to remove the word “lean” from the title of an article I’d written about his shop. That surprised me, considering that the article dealt mostly with shopfloor improvements that clearly embodied lean manufacturing principles. On further investigation, I discovered that the real problem wasn’t with what I revealed about what the shop had done, but with the word itself. Ironically, many of the same employees who had fully embraced—and even helped implement—the changes detailed in the article had also developed an intense distaste for all things “lean.” My contact simply didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.

It turned out that the employees’ distaste had its roots in a formal continuous improvement program implemented a few years back. Unfortunately, the program lacked clear focus, and the effort required to comply with its requirements seemed to outweigh any benefit. As my contact puts it, “The whole ‘let’s do lean’ thing fell flat on its face.” Now, he says, the shop aims to make improvement efforts “smarter” by picking and choosing applicable tools to solve specific problems, often under a more generic banner like productivity or capacity building. Kanban systems and shadowboards are among the many examples of lean tools that the shop has evolved to use organically—that is, as a direct result of specific changes in its approach to machining parts rather than any all-encompassing effort to transform the entire organization. 

Just a few weeks later, I spoke with another executive at a completely different shop who echoed those comments. “I’ve participated in quite enough of these ‘theories of the week,’” he notes wryly. He emphasizes, however, that problems tend to arise not with specific strategies and tools for improvement, but rather with how shops apply those strategies and tools. “Every shop has its own recipe that’s going to make it thrive,” he says. “You can pull a bit from theory of constraints, lean, TQM, Six Sigma, and so forth, and at the end of the day, you’ve got a recipe that’ll work for you.”

A couple of anecdotes from a couple of shops might not be enough to draw any firm conclusions about how to best approach improvement efforts. Nonetheless, they do provide fodder for conversation. Do these comments resonate with your own experience? Comment below or send me an email—I’d love to hear about your own improvement efforts, whether positive or negative.