The three keys to Lean Transformation Success

Most organizations are launching Continuous improvement transformation. Whatever it is called Lean Manufacturing, Lean Management « Company » Production System, Lean Six Sigma, World Class Management, Simplicity and Efficiency. These approaches are all closely inspired from Japanese and American methods Toyota Production System, World Class Manufacturing, Theory of Constraints, Quality, ISO or Six Sigma…


1- Main failures relate to 3 levels inconsistency

The 3 success keys do consist in answering to the the main questions from the 2007 Industry Week benchmark stating that 98% of Lean Programs in US companies failed to achieve their goals. At this moment, all experts provide their own keys to success:

  • Rick Pay initially provided four reasons in the 2008 Industry Week article ( top management not committed, top management unwilling to recognize the cultural change impact mostly by the fact that Lean is not process but a complete new mindset and way of thinking, lacking right skills at the right level, and short term operational quick wins.
  • Jeffrey Liker and Mike Rother expand, from the previous article, their own experience (, to the need of a new way of thinking and acting, the one to develop strong mental circuits, not for solutions, but for how to develop solutions. They decline an improvement ‘kata’ or coaching cycle leading to a way to teach and learn that involves people’s capabilities.
  • The largest Strategy and Change Consulting firms expand their own large Transformation organizational experiences by summarizing to the facts. These are close to the study from John Kotter ( famous author on Change:
    • Creating a climate for change at leadership level: create urgency, form a powerful coalition and create a vision for change
    • Engaging and enabling the organization: overcommuncate 10 times the vision, empower action and focus on short term wins
    • Implementing and sustaining for change: build on change, and make it part of the culture.


These recommendations all relate to the 3 keys or levels to perform consistency on both sides- analytical and intuitive- between:

  • Top Management defining strategy and vision and steering the mission,
  • Middle Management, responsible for coordination,
  • Bottom operational in charge of activities.


2- Managing your Transformation simultaneously at these 3 levels

The way to succeed in your transformation requires you to make the consistency happen through your transformation plan.

First, starting with Top management to define orientation: by working with them on their requirements, not only in terms of results, but also on their vision. This part includes an operational, managerial as well as cultural assessment (see in our Blog the article: Then, from this assessment, starts building with them their unique way to Lean Transformation. From your expertise, external benchamrks, and company assets and culture. This means building the right roadmap, based on people’s skills, referring to the relevant expertise, and finding the most critical areas and processes to address.

Second, working with middle management to integrate new levels of leadership: consistently with steering, HR and operational processes, the way to evolve their management and leadership style. Operationnally develop with them the tools and ways to leverage their management approaches to a more efficient management. Do not impose ways to get there, since this will depend on each manager style and needs. The more their leadership will grow, the easier they’ll allow their teams to expand their talents and skills.

Third, at operational level, all must be put in place so that operational people find a way to solve their most critical issues. You may come with lots of tools (flow, shopfloor, organization, optimizing tasks with standards…), so forget them for a while ! Start by their issues, and with their managers act upon what will bring them the most immediate and visible relief, then move forward to structure and deploy this approach.


3- The most critical aspects of the transformation do concern coaching

At each of the 3 levels, there is critical attention to be performed, related to human beings natural behaviors. You will not succeed in Transforming your organization if you do not drive people to change themselves, at every level. As Gandhi says, « You can only be the change you want to see ». Each level has to understand that it’s their own interest to evolve, and you will only be able to perform this by building confidence at each level, with the majority of people. For each of the levels, this gives the following resistance and way to act upon it.

Mike Rother has introduced this topic in the book ‘Toyota Kata’ from Toyota concerning the shopfloor level, and this principle applies for the Lean Leader and the Manager at all levels in the organization. In fact this is a real operational coaching approach, and all ways you may find to develop an efficient coaching attitude will drive you there. Indeed, Toyota are not the only ones to have applied a coaching approach, coaching is today a well deployed approach with many references in processes and skill developments. Watch carefully for a very operational dimension of the coaching approach.

At top management and executive level, time is rare and impact of decisions is large. The key point concerns your own certainty: if you do lack certainty you will not be able to challenge positively their approach. You have to develop, from your own previous experience and/or expertise, a way to stand at their level and guide them to a clear and inspiring vision, to communicate their values through the Lean Transformation.

At middle management level, there is the most critical combination of high pressure and low flexibility in agenda and means. It is very likely that such a Lean transformation may appear as an additional burden. All the value added work of your Transformation support will consist in finding a way to provide middle managers a step back to have a higher understanding of their issues. The question to ask is: « how can you contribute to help them getting a higher vision, faster way to get to priorities and delegate to people ? » Helping them prioritizing their issues and most important costs and wastes attack approach in their area will provide.

At operational level, you shall focus on people’s concerns and attention. Do not push Lean tools, provide them time for them and see what is the most important for them. Find a pedagogical way to get to agree with them to the meaning of the tools, not the tools. Then cerate a space and time opportunity (training, workshop, meetings…) to focus on their real issues, really caring about these issues, solving them and maintaining solutions over time.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”” parallax=”” parallax_image=””][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text css_animation=””]As a conclusion, the key to a Lean transformation are not in the Lean tools, the « What ». These are all available, and explained in various ways. This is in the « Why » the teams will apply these tools; if you get a shared why for each tool –a lacking inspiring vision, a missing step back for prioritzing, a neglected respect for operational safety- then you’ll find the « How » to make it work in cross-functional and cross-hierarchical teams, and the « What » will just be easy to build with the teams.