How long does it take to embed lean?

Aug 16, 2016

This series has already written about People, Purpose and Process in the creation of a lean organisation. In these times there is constant pressure to deliver results and maintain the rate of improvement so we are often challenged to deliver an “embedded” lean system as a soon a possible.

When your organisation will have an embedded lean system depends on some key factors. To me, embedded lean is when the system is delivering double digit (>10%) returns consistently, despite the organisational and sector challenges that it faces.

This is also the difference between running a lean “initative” and building a lean culture. The initiative will often deliver results, but for many this only lasts for one cycle or one pass through the business. These are the organsiations who say “we’ve done lean that was yesterdays news”!!! It may have served a purpose but they have missed the point.

The size of an organisation plays a role too, but really this is about the depth of engagement in the system. Logic says that if you haven’t yet reached all of the people then an improvement culture cannot be embedded. This makes it imperitive that we reach as many people as quickly as possible because if a significant challenge comes in the meantime then there is a huge risk of stall or collapse.

So the timeframe changes – for a small business of less than 100 people this could be as low as 18 months. For a medium organisation (say 500-1000 people) it is probably more like 3-5 years and a large business could take 10-15 years to build in. It is fair to say larger businesses do have the opportunity to tackle individual facilities or segments of their business but this may not get them where they need to be.

The single most common challenge to your system will be a change of leadership. If you lose or change a chief executive or key member of the board will your system stop? If there is a risk then it is clear that it’s not embedded yet and there is more work to be done.

To combat this the middle layers in the organsiation need support and development to become the ambassadors. Implementors all over will tell you that the operators are easy to engage, they really tend to enjoy getting involved in improving the business but the middle leadership tend to be the ones that are more difficult to engage. This requires specific effort and support because they are the ones that can hold the system together and stay true to the objectives when the challenges happen.

It is worth reflecting on how resilient or fragile your system is and what would happen if your leader changes.