I’ve been pleased to see so many organizations embrace a robust approach to quality improvement through methods like Lean and Six Sigma. There are indeed some detractors out there, but for the most part these are people that have observed failed deployments of quality initiatives. It is not uncommon for people to blame the improvement method when in fact it was the execution of that method that was flawed. The corporate graveyard is littered with examples of companies that thought they could take a pill and learn everything there is to know about implementing Lean or Six Sigma. As veterans know, it’s not that simple.
I recently put to my colleagues a simple, one-question survey: “Is it the Method or Execution to blame when quality improvement methodologies like Lean and Six Sigma do not produce the desired result?” Ninety-two percent of responses blamed the execution. But 8% still blamed the method! Clearly, we have some work to do with those that continue to deny the potential of data-centric decision-making.
But that is not what I am here to talk about today. No, I want to speak to those individuals that uttered those three dangerous words “we did Lean.”
To be sure, implementing a Lean-inspired program requires courage and commitment. I applaud all of you that have taken on the challenge, dealt with the skeptics, overcome the resistance, and wrestled free the resources to get your program launched and deployed. In a study we completed of 10 organizations that we supported over the past 10 years and 150 completed projects, we have validated a return on investment from Lean and Six Sigma of over 7:1. Since that study, we continue to see similar results from every engagement we lead. So those individuals that rose to the challenge likely saw comparable rewards.
These rewards are not limited to financial benefits, either. Three organizations we supported earned the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige Award for Quality.
It may be tempting, on reflecting back on such success to take a deep breath, feel a sense of accomplishment, and to even share with a colleague, that “we did Lean.” That is where you need to stop in your tracks and realize the damage you’ve done to yourself and, potentially, your organization.
Of course by now you realize – you do not “do” Lean. You may become Lean, but you will NEVER stay Lean without an ongoing commitment to the mandate to eliminate waste and accelerate the flow of value to your customers.
The risk of letting up when you think you’ve met your goal is perfectly illustrated by the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Legend has it that the Dolphins locker room posted a large banner “We are going to the Super Bowl” which teammates acknowledged with great enthusiasm before each game, during half time, and following each victory. The sign was clearly an inspiration to the team: they went to the Super Bowl that year, for the first time in franchise history. What happened next? They lost to the Dallas Cowboys 24-3, in one of the most lopsided contests in Super Bowl history at the time. The Dolphins had met their goal, even if it was not the goal that they, and their fans, wanted most (they must have found out later how to recalibrate expectations, as they won the Super Bowl the following two consecutive seasons).
The fact is, we live in a dynamic world, a world that is changing faster with every new generation, each new discovery and disruptive technology. Customer expectations are constantly evolving. The voice of the customer adapts to these changes, and you would know if you were listening.
It may be tempting to claim you’ve “done Lean,” accept your awards and recognition, and call it a day. Certainly that will be what many are tempted to do. DO NOT BE THAT PERSON.
The greatest legacy you can leave behind after deploying Lean is to make it a new way of doing business. That means a continued commitment to looking internally, launching new improvement projects, revisiting recently improved processes, running control charts, and monitoring control plans. Because there will ALWAYS be new places where improvement is needed. Because of the dynamics of your industry and the economy, you are NEVER finished. You need to aim to win the Super Bowl every year.
Fortunately, you have a compelling reason to make Lean a part of daily work for now and forever. It’s called “return on investment.” And that ROI can come in more forms than you can possibly imagine.
Remember: Lean is a journey, not a destination.