A Roadmap to Success or a Lesson on Map Reading?

There is much discussion about the “tool-centric” nature of today’s lean efforts.  This raises an important question about what is being emphasized with lean training, certification, and awards.  Does the widely-acknowledged problem with identifying bottom-line results mean that, rather than giving individuals a useful roadmap to achieve powerful results, they simply focus on the individual tools in the toolkit–emphasizing a generic set of skills?  In other words, are individuals simply taught how to read a map–and then left to their own devices to find the right map to read?

Based on the seemingly widespread acceptance of “experimentation” in implementing lean, this does appear to be the case.  Yet, now decades into the lean movement, shouldn’t more specific guidance on a structure for moving forward be given?

Lack of a clear roadmap seems to extend to lean hybrids as well–a possible cause for some of the problems pointed out in a blog post titled Continuous Improvement’s Continuous Mistakes.  The author describes concerns with many Lean Six Sigma (LSS) efforts, such as unstructured project selection, lack of financial or strategic emphasis, and using cost avoidance as a consideration to justify projects. 

With regard to selecting where to begin, too many lean efforts simply attack problems where they are seen–rather than first gaining an understanding of the broader dynamics that causes waste to accumulate in the first place (and will likely cause it to return–probably leading to the significant “backsliding” issue).  As far as financial and strategic thinking, I pointed out in Why Isn’t “Mainstream” Lean Working that many leading the lean movement have acknowledged that benefits aren’t reaching the bottom line–an indication that something is missing in their approaches.  I do take exception on the issue of cost avoidance, however–I think most companies would agree that it would matter if they could avoid the need to stock millions of dollars in inventories.

So, where is the roadmap?

Where lean often falls short is its application in complex, dynamic business settings.  As I found from my study of aerospace (clearly just such a business), there does exist a progression that lean efforts should take to see the best results at each step along the way, which I have described in my books and articles.  Moreover, there are great lessons from companies that have used a structured approach and have shown extraordinary results.  Perhaps it is time to stop promoting the application of meandering “continuous improvement” programs, in favor of a structured approach to measureable gains on the way to sustainable transformation of the business.