Monday, March 6, 2017

Why is Lean So Hard? – Organizational Elements

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Lean – So Easy, It’s Hard’ seems to have hit home. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments.

In this piece I focused on our personal qualities that make Lean so hard to sustain (e.g. our innate trickiness and laziness).

A number of folks asked me to talk some more about organizational elements that hinder Lean.

Lean’s foundation is Standards and Connections – (Rules 1 and 2 of the Four Rules articulated by our MIT friend & colleague, Dr Stephen Spear, whose work I recommend highly.)

What organizational elements or qualities weaken or hinder Standards and Connections?


A standard is a picture of ‘What Should Be Happening’ (WSBH), our current ‘least-waste-way’ of doing a given task, the best way we know today. Most often, the front line team defines our standards for doing our work.

Senior leaders define WSBH in the form of organizational goals, the management system through which we run and improve our business, and our values (standards of behavior).

Here’s the rub: If senior leaders fail to meet the latter, our team members will ignore the former. Senior leaders have to embody our Values. If not, team members will pay scant attention to our organization’s goals & management system.

Think about that – team members will ignore our Purpose and our way of working. Can decay be far off? I’m reminded of Peter Drucker’s elegant summation of the Leader’s Purpose: 1) Get business results, 2) Create capability, and 3) Reinforce values.

Leader visibility in the form of purposeful & regular gemba time is an excellent way of doing all three. “Holy cow, the President was just here. She remembered my name and thanked us for making our problems visible and taking the lead in fixing them. She had some good suggestions & she’d be back again next month.”

In summary, if leaders at all levels embody the organization’s values, team members will embrace its purpose and management system.


Connections are the magnetic force that animates our management system. Each team has multiple connections – to our internal customers and suppliers, and to our ultimate customer. Strong connections entail reflecting on and answering challenging questions:

Just who are our customers? What do they need from us? What are the critical few metrics that express those needs? How do we make our current condition visible, so that we can see our biggest problems – and fix them?

To answer such questions, we need a supportive management system and culture. At our splendid Toyota site in Cambridge Ontario, it was understood that the downstream process was our customer, and that we’d have a stand-up meeting every morning to reflect on how we did the day before. If we in the Paint shop had delivered junk to the Assembly shop, we took it personally. I was letting down Freddie and his team. At shift end, all of us suppliers to Assembly shop met at the ‘money board’ to reflect on how we’d done, and how we’d improve.

Big Company Disease, the nemesis in many of my books, weakens such connections and can be a mortal threat. Big Company Disease usually begins with hubris – arrogance, haughtiness, excessive pride. “He who the gods would destroy, they first hold high…”, Euripides tells us.

Sometimes, industry structure inherently hinders connections. Government agencies (almost always monopolies), are perhaps the most obvious example. In the absence of competition, why should anybody care about the customer? (You may recall my recent ‘Agita at Air Canada’ piece…) To be sure, even here, fine people are fighting the good fight. A deep bow here to Governor Doug Ducey and the team in the great state of Arizona, who are building the Arizona Management System to make government work for the people. Imagine that… [video]

But would this splendid enterprise flourish under a less diligent governor? And what happens when Governor Ducey moves on? Indeed, building and sustaining connections are the Achilles’ Heel of public service.

Increasingly, rapidly advancing technology can weaken connections. I remember a strategy session with a senior Silicon Valley team, who spent much of the time berating customers for being ‘so out of it’.

“What do you think?” the senior leader asked me at session’s end. “I think you hate your customers,” my reply.

In summary, Lean is hard to sustain because of a) our human hard-wiring, as described in my earlier blog, and b) organizational elements that weaken Standards and Connections, as described above.

Excellent is a game with endless innings. At best we partially succeed – and that makes all the difference.

Best regards,


1 comment:

  1. I'd love to hear more about your version of "big company disease". I suspect I know where you are going, but it's always good to clarify.