How Lean is too Lean: Has your business become too thin?

Lean Let’s be truthful about this. The methodology and principles applied by the business as part of a Lean approach to operations management can be very effective and have had a massive positive cumulative effect on the operations of many businesses. Thanks to the Toyota Production System we now see methodologies around Lean commonly implemented across manufacturing product companies and service organisations ranging over a broad spectrum of vertical sectors.

Whilst I am a big fan of Lean and its consequential benefits for the business, of late I have seen, how the over application of Lean or adopting the ‘wrong end of the stick’ can lead to dire outcomes. This is where we have to ask ourselves a couple of serious self-reflecting questions which I will get to in a second.

Lean is aimed at inter alia reducing waste in the organisation. One of the fundamental elements of Lean adopted to support your continuous improvement and innovation management process is the involvement of the employee. By bringing the employee into the process and supplying the employee with a voice to actively participate in improvement efforts by making suggestions and producing ideas. To ensure this element is met, a climate must be created and sustained, that will stimulate idea sharing and suggestions being produced. It should indeed become part of the culture of the organisation and calls for the correct management style to be adopted. Command and Control as we know it, is a no-go area and will not support this way of working (a topic I will cover off in another blog post).

Lean2What bothers me is the many ‘Lean’ businesses I have visited over the last couple of years, that are perhaps not as Lean as they initially thought they were. Well they invested in nothing, if that is what you want to call being Lean. Going into a boardroom I have the CEO proudly and eagerly announcing ‘we are a Lean business’.  When doing any consultancy I like to do a gap analysis and this often involves rolling up my sleeves and getting to work on ground level in the relevant business area. After all some of the best ideas come directly from front-line staff. My diagnosis – we have a serious case of a Cheapskate business, dressed in Lean clothing. It’s a management style, a way of doing things.

Some organisations like to hide behind Lean principles to go on redundancy sprees, limiting investment in the staff of the business, overloading employees with too much work, and in the process creating a very unhappy workforce. So how does this support Lean? It does not. A happy workforce is key to your Lean strategy and must never become just about cutting down where the opportunity presents itself. You will soon find yourself with a much bigger burden and expense to carry – that of an unsatisfied workforce and big turnover of staff. Your suggestions pot will be empty, creativity will be out of the door and there will be no business left before you know it. Do you really champion your people though Lean?

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