Lean Tools versus a Lean Mindset - is there a difference?

When I was first introduced to Lean many years ago I was handed a small document that summarised Lean.  On the cover it was the 5S cycle, in the few pages after that is described briefly the 8 wastes and a bit about stand up meetings.  That was it.

There was no mention about continuous improvement, people or the focus on improving your job everyday.  This particular Lean programme was driven by a focus on the tools. It took me a while to understand the difference and why this “Lean thing” wasn’t really sticking with the teams. To be truthful, I am always learning about what doesn’t work.  Despite the myriad of books, videos, training opportunities that are out there, a focus on tools still happens. Why? Because it is easy to see, measure, and demonstrate the immediate impact. Being able to train a team on 5S and then go out and complete a Kaizen event around the ‘Sort’, filling up skip bins, clearing away decades of hoarding - it is satisfying, I know I have done it.  All it achieves amounts to a team completing a long overdue spring clean. 

The challenge is that the tools available in the Lean Toolbox are the ‘how’.  What most people miss out on is establishing and understanding the ‘why’.  This is the very reason I use Lego Serious Play with teams, so we can establish the ‘why’ for them.  We can spend time co-creating a vision of the perfect project, ideal customer experience, or explore the elements that will make the year successful.  Having that established true north is so important so everyone knows what the expectations are and can link the continuous improvement activity to that team created vision. This is the missing link.  I have written about this in a previous blog post. Once that is completed, then introducing the various tools becomes easier, they are in context to the team’s objectives rather than another task that has been imposed on them.

When I get asked to talk to groups or a specific team, I will spend 80% of the time talking about the why.  Emphasising why it is important to engage your team and staff,  why it is important to role model the behaviours you are expecting and why it is absolutely critical to empower your staff to push back and allow them to fix the issues that are important to them.  Lean and a continuous improvement journey is all about people. Creating an environment or ‘culture’ of business improvement is essential for any successful lean based journey.  Without this you can introduce as many tools as you like but the chances of success are low.

Fundamentally introducing Lean into a business is a change process.  With all successful change processes, setting the awareness and creating the buy-in are the essential steps before hitting the ‘do’ button. This is the fundamental reason why I use the term “Lean Thinking” because to have a successful Lean journey, it is a mindset.  Team members understand why they are encouraged to think about solving problems, making a better system or process. It is about respecting each other and creating a culture of improvement. Being able to see the whole process and how to collectively fix problems, create better flow or materials, information, services - this is Lean.

Creating this new organisational culture is hard, which is why over 70% of attempts to introduce Lean fails.  Before you start, there needs to be a clear understanding that this will take a long time to achieve sustainable results. I encourage teams to take the slow and steady approach - slow down to go fast was a cliche used in a workshop last week.  The discipline to keep encouraging, challenging people to improve is difficult, especially on days where chaos appears to reign.  

The tools enable people to solve problems but it is the mindset to go out and look for them is true Lean Thinking.


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