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Lean Thinking and Total Involvement

"Success with Lean does not typically revolve around how well you apply a particular tool," asserts Jeff Fuchs, president of Neovista Consulting LLC (, Baltimore. "It [also] does not hinge on the "mechanics" of Lean. Rather, the most common failure modes are on the human side."

 One misconception is that the discipline known as Lean Manufacturing is a collection of tools, Fuchs says. "But the heart of Lean is not the improvement toolbox" it is the improvement philosophy." Emphasizing that the more complete description for Lean is "Lean thinking," he says that concept reflects the true power of Lean: not tools, but the thinking behind use of those tools. "Seeing business processes differently through Lean thinking drives lasting changes in behavior, which leads to improved business performance."

How do manufacturers improve understanding and implementation of Lean techniques and thinking? "It's important for managers to spend more time "on the floor," observing processes to see what flows smoothly and what doesn't," advises Chuck Yorke, president of PeopleKaizen (, a training firm based in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. "Reports don't tell what is really going on. Get out of the office and onto the floor."

Missed opportunities

Too little floor time may mean missed opportunities. "Almost every major Japanese company has adopted a process by which all employees focus on continuous improvement, all the time. But in America, almost every major company hasn't," observes Yorke, co-author of "All You Gotta Do Is Ask," a book describing ways to tap employee ideas. In the United States, improvements come from Kaizen Blitz events, Six Sigma projects, problem-solving teams, research-and-development departments, continuous-improvement or Lean engineers and other things, he explains. "In other words, it's not the day-to-day responsibility of each employee."

A tip Fuchs offers for overcoming this inertia is to train everyone. Why? Because identifying and eliminating waste is one of Lean's main goals, he says. "And that requires a group effort. Employees must understand Lean fundamentals well enough to identify waste and eliminate it as they find it throughout their business day."

A common pitfall in eliminating waste is adopting a tools-centric vs. a waste-centric approach. "Many people, first exposed to a Lean tool, become overly focused on how to use that tool. When someone is armed with a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail," Fuchs quips. To counter that, he advises focusing on processes critical to customer satisfaction, and then identifying wastes that impede process performance.

Another tip Fuchs offers is to immerse key decision makers in Lean. "By far, the number-one failure mode of Lean implementation is management commitment and support," he says. Potential root causes for inadequate managerial buy-in include vested interest in status quo maintenance, lack of true understanding of Lean, and inability to support and nurture improvement teams. But Fuchs emphasizes that these root causes must be uncovered and addressed for Lean thinking to be successful.

Securing managerial support also means that management must comprehend commitment. "They must understand what Lean is and how it will fundamentally change the business," Fuchs says. But be discerning. "If you believe Lean is a flavor-of-the-day management gimmick, [then] it is. Your management team must believe otherwise for Lean to achieve its full potential," he states.

Yorke agrees that engaged employees need engaged management. "People are more than willing to contribute, but they need to be encouraged and supported by their immediate supervisors”and appreciated by all management levels in the organization.

He suggests a good starting place for managers is reading "The Idea Generator: Quick and Easy Kaizen," by Bunji Tozawa and Norman Bodek. 

C. Kenna Amos,  


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