Lean, along with Six Sigma, are now the prominent performance-improvement programs adopted by smart, innovative businesses. Organisations are benefiting from Lean Six Sigma (Lean) by methodically eliminating waste, variability, defects and inflexibility.

Organisations who leverage the use of Lean start to dominate their markets through the advantage of better margins and continuous improvement. Lean organisations don’t need to compete on price.

Unfortunately, without the full application of Lean, organisations are definitely missing out on potential savings when they implement or expand operational-improvement programs. This happens because organisations set their sights too low; or implement Lean without recognising the power and drag effect of their corporate culture. This is compounded when leaders underestimate the level of senior-management involvement that is required.

Too often Lean is misunderstood and addressed as a short term project – because Lean is all about continuous improvement, therefore when you start Lean there is no finish line.

There will be Good Productive Change, and Change Needs Effective Management and Leadership

In the beginning of Lean implementation, companies emphasise the technical aspects of their programs over the organisational ones. That approach is understandable. Technical solutions are objective and straightforward; analytical solutions to operational problems abound in Lean tool kits.

Overlooking the people side however, drastically lowers any initiative’s odds of success. If an organisation were to rush to implement Lean without ensuring that their employees—including managers—understood the need to implement Lean and its benefits. Then in such cases, “initiative fatigue” and even distrust may set in, and efficiency gains would fizzle out as designated implementation team move onto other areas.

If the program’s goals aren’t adequately defined or communicated across the organisation, those tasked with Lean implementation will focus on what they can achieve—primarily easy wins, to redesign processes and to improve the effectiveness of certain processes.

With proper communication and investment by leadership, executives will investigate the organisational factors behind the difficulties, and ultimately identify better far-reaching solutions—for example an effort to get sales and operations to collaborate in setting production priorities and to work together on a daily basis.

Success Usually Comes From Within

Organisations will encounter greater success when adopting Lean if they attend to the people elements throughout its whole course. When senior leaders identify the key goals and start to communicate them those who will be embedding the agreed improvements will be engaged. This helps companies to establish a stronger foundation for change and to set more achievable, and often much higher, ambitions than they otherwise could.

A better understanding of the cultural starting point enables the organisation to determine where they should focus at the beginning of a program, when to implement its various elements, and how to achieve their goals.

Once an organisation embarks on a Lean path it’s common, to see most of the value come from new work processes, not new and more efficient machines. Most of the ideas for improvement already reside with employees. The employees also have the potential to deliver further innovation as the first round of efficiencies are introduced.

Therefore without respecting and acknowledging the corporate culture and investing in the change communication, a Lean initiative will falter or fail to deliver on its full potential.

Making Change Happen and Stick

After accounting for the way culture and other organisational factors will affect the goals of a Lean program, smart companies put what they learn into action. They reap bigger, more sustainable benefits by balancing the program’s technical and people elements and by developing their line managers’ Lean leadership skills.

Successful organisations implementing the Lean plan accommodate the organisational structures and processes. Because even the mind-sets of employees could affect the organisation’s ability to meet the goals it set.

Lead Through the Line

We all know employees are busy, even before the introduction of the Lean program, production deadlines are aggressive, and supervisors are busy. Because of this real short term pressure, a common error is for some to suggest that line managers should not be involved in the Lean program and focus instead on day-to-day concerns.

If an organisation therefore only tasks senior executives to orchestrate change programs they will start off well but eventually fail. By caging the responsibility for Lean initiatives (and, by extension, the underlying ideas) to ‘the executive’, these companies often miss significant opportunities. Moreover, once the low-hanging fruit is gone, such efforts often lose steam as employees slip into old habits.

Most of the knowledge on ‘how things work around here’ reside with the line management and their employees. This means that most ideas for innovation and enhanced productivity also sit with the line managers. For there to be deep and lasting change in the organisation all employees must be taught how to use the Lean tools. Most importantly, the idea of a culture of continuous improvement. Otherwise there will be a clash of old and new cultures – leaving the organisation with an overall culture deemed as toxic.


When an organisation shifts the attention of its managers away from firefighting, focuses on developing their leadership capabilities, and makes them accountable, the gains are bigger and lasting. Supervisors and junior managers are best placed to lead change efforts and to serve as long-term role models—and should be held accountable for doing so.

It is important for an organisation to create a role/profile of their expectation of their Lean leader — such as problem-solving, coaching, and analytical skills. Once agreed build a process to train and develop numerous Lean leaders.

To get the most from your continuous improvement program, look past the procedural aspects of Lean and embrace the people aspect. Complementing the development of technical skills with a focus on the organisational capabilities that make efficiency benefits real can help companies to achieve more substantial, sustainable, and scalable results.

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