Leading a Successful Lean Implementation: 4 Practices - Carlos Venegas

Leading a Successful Lean Implementation: 4 Practices

Most Lean implementations fail over time.[1],[2] That is a shocking fact considering how Lean has brought significant, positive changes to many manufacturing organizations. Add the complexity of bringing Lean into the office, and the challenge is increased even more. That leaves you with an important question: How do you stack the odds in your favor?

There are four simple, effective practices that can make the difference. When you bring them into play,  you increase the likelihood of success in the Lean office.

These practices may seem simple or obvious, but don’t let that fool you. There is more to them than meets the eye.


#1 Clarity

Everyone knows what “clear” means, right? WRONG!

A good way to think about clarity is that it is the opposite of ambiguity. Clarity means acting and speaking without ambiguity. In practical terms, in a Lean implementation, drive for maximum clarity in personal, group, and organizational communications about the reasons for implementing Lean. It also means driving for clarity when articulating the Lean strategy and goals for the organization, and how Lean will affect groups and individuals within the organization. (More on communication details later.)

Why is clarity so important? Without clarity, people and organizations can find themselves ambivalent about the next steps for change. This ambivalence can slow or even paralyze Lean improvement efforts.

Ambiguity is normal, and in and of itself, is not harmful. It causes the most damage when you try to avoid or deny it.  Organizations fill the void left by ambiguity with rumor, guesses, assumptions, and worse. [3]  Implementing Lean without addressing ambiguity head-on is like driving with the parking brake on: the engine is on, you’ve got your foot on the gas, but you’re not moving as quickly as you’d like. After a while, you smell something burning. That can’t be good.

Being clear does not mean acting certain when things are ambiguous. If you are just starting to bring your Lean program into your offices, you will face ambiguity as you learn new ways of looking at your work and business. As a leader, however, you can do something about it.

You can encourage a kind of decisiveness  when things are ambiguous, or even chaotic. Here’s how:


  1. Identify the areas of ambiguity, the areas of clarity, as well as the boundaries between them
  2. Determine what to do, given the current understanding
  3. Make sure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities in executing the plan of action[4]


There are a number of benefits to this strategy. First, it guides you to inventory what you know and what you don’t know. This demands what Peter Drucker calls intellectual integrity: “…the ability to see the world as it is, not as you want it to be.”[5]

In this way, integrity comes through in your conversations about Lean. You create an environment more favorable to learning, and you will be doing a lot of learning as you explore Lean in the office. An office that sustains Lean is a learning office.

Clarity from you also helps people understand what to do. People at work are constantly making decisions. When you are clear about the role that Lean will play in the business and about the related ambiguities, it gives your people the opportunity to expand the edges of clarity with their own contributions of ideas, learning, and actions.

Finally, clarity sets the stage for effective communication and channels the energy required to sustain commitment.

Below are two examples of how clarity can impact an improvement project.


Our wheels are spinning, and we’re getting nowhere fast!

An executive called me in to help a team that was in trouble. The team seemed unable to make any progress, even after meeting together on a weekly basis for four months. The team leader was sure that the project manager (PM) was the reason they were not making progress. He believed that getting a new PM would release them from their quagmire, and they would then be productive.

It quickly became clear that the PM was not the root cause of their “stuckness.” Rather, there were two standout issues that contributed to it: (1) the scope of the team’s project went beyond the authority and control of their sponsor, and (2) the team lacked clear, measureable goals.

The part of the project that fell outside the scope of the sponsor was inherently ambiguous in this case because the outside groups in question were not a part of the team, and no plans were in place to bring them in. How would they respond to changes the team developed? No one knew.

In this case, they considered two ways of resolving their first standout issue: (1) include the outside groups in the project in some way, and (2) reduce the scope of the project to fall within the authority of the sponsor. They elected to pursue the second option since it was the more simple of the two (and they were eager to get into action).

A lack of clear, measurable goals was their second standout issue. Their goals were worded as such:

  • Reduce the amount of time it takes to relocate a new-hire by 20%
  • Improve the move experience

They replaced these ambiguous goals with more specific ones:

  • Reduce the amount of time it takes to relocate a new-hire from x days to y days
  • Identify key new-hire move satisfaction items; establish a performance baseline against the satisfaction items; set specific, time-bound improvement goals against the satisfaction items

The first target was modified to be specific about their current performance, and where they wanted it to be at the end of the project. This level of specificity (a) forced the team to demonstrate that they understood the current rate of performance, and (b) gave the team a specific number against which to gauge their progress.

The team confronted their ambiguity about what new hires considered important in terms of quality. The clarity of the second target forced the team to get clear on what new hires need from their process. It also gave them a way to get feedback on their service performance. From that feedback they had a basis on which to measure and improve quality.

Without a scope of work for which they were supported, and without crystal-clear targets, the team simply kept meeting, thinking that if they just worked hard and long enough, they would be able to push through what was to them an invisible barrier.

Once the team adjusted their scope and clarified their goals, the next steps became obvious to them. The team went on to easily and successfully complete their goals.


Everyone’s a customer!

A client called me in to help develop an online management system that would collect and report performance data through an intranet and group server. Among the many questions I ask with a project like this is: who is the end user of this system? (The “end user” could also be termed “customer.”) The director answered with this: the end users include the VP, the VP’s leadership team, and the entire organization run by the VP. In short, everybody was the end user. That appeared to be an ambiguous answer, but I wanted to be sure.

I tried to get at who the end user was with a different question: who ultimately will use the information provided by this system? The director answered:  primarily the VP in order to understand what is happening in her organization, and to report to her boss, the president of the division. Bingo, the end user is the VP. In the director’s first answer, what he really meant was that everyone would use the system to input information, but that information produced by the system would ultimately be used by the VP. That’s a different system from one where the information would be used by the entire organization. That would not have been known without asking numerous questions of clarification.


Clarity helps the organization get things done, and it makes communication more effective, too.




#2 Communication

Effective business communication changes behavior and is audience-centered.[6] For people to change behavior, they need to understand what is being asked of them. Tell them:

  • what Lean in the office is and how the Lean effort is relevant to their work
  • what actions they need to take in order to support the change
  • what tools and training they will need to implement Lean in the office
  • what measures will be used, as well as rewards and consequences
  • what success looks like in the Lean office
  • “what’s in it for them.”[7]


What is Lean and how is it relevant to their work? People will want to know why they are being asked to do something different from the way they’ve done it before. Draw a clear link between Lean and your business strategy. Demonstrate how Lean, as an operational strategy, can support your business strategy and help you achieve your goals.

Once people understand the relevance, they will need to know what actions to take. Be clear about their roles in implementing Lean in the office. Don’t make them guess. Be specific. Lack of role clarity causes confusion and frustration, and can even lead to unnecessary conflict.

Let your people know what tools, training, and other resources are available to support their Lean office roles. Starting a Lean program for the office requires learning new ways of thinking and acting. Make sure that your employees are equipped for success.

Tell your employees how Lean success in the office will be measured. Measures guide and motivate action. Also be clear about the rewards and consequences associated with acting in support of your Lean office efforts.

Paint a vivid picture of what success looks like. Unless the future is a compelling one, there is little reason to change, even when present circumstances are dire. Provide something for your organization to move toward.

Your employees will need to see themselves in the Lean office vision of the future. Their motivations, no matter how altruistic, will have a healthy measure of self-interest. And why shouldn’t they? That is normal. Help them see how the vision of the future answers their “what’s in it for me?” question.

I have compiled a list of questions to use as guides for developing your communications concerning Lean in the office. By no means an exhaustive list, these questions will help you craft effective change communications, whether oral or written. Remember—be as specific as possible. If you can’t be specific yet, tell people why, what you intend to do about it, and when.


  • What is Lean?
  • Why are we doing it?
  • How does it fit into the business strategies and goals?
  • What are the roles, accountabilities, and authorities?
  • What is planned, and when will it happen?
  • Who is affected?
  • Who is involved?
  • What are the goals?
  • What are the benefits?
  • What challenges can we expect, and how will we support employees in meeting those challenges?
  • What training will we provide, and who will get it?
  • What resources are available?
  • What does success look like?
  • What are the measures of success?


Keep your communications simple by using Lean principles when you communicate. Here are some tips:


  • When planning your communications, start with the intended behavior you wish to see from your audience, then work back from there.
  • Your customer defines quality, and in communications your customer is the person or the people with whom you are communicating. Get their feedback like you would any other process customer.
  • Don’t use a complicated word when a simple one will do. Smaller words speak to more people than big words. Avoid foreign languages.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words. If a picture will help you tell the story, use the picture.
  • Keep subjects, verbs, and objects close together; this helps people reduce their mental set-up time.
  • 5S your information: keep it simple and short.


Effective communication leads to commitment.


#3 Commitment

Change requires commitment. A Lean office program requires the active commitment of leadership to succeed. This active commitment is demonstrated in both actions and words. Words are the easy part. One can read this and other Lean materials and begin to understand the philosophy and principles of Lean. That is useful to the leader. I recommend it. And yet becoming knowledgeable about Lean is only the first step in acquiring and demonstrating commitment to Lean.

While understanding the philosophy and principles of Lean, demonstrating your commitment to Lean through your actions is essential. Here’s how you demonstrate your commitment:


  • Talk about Lean all the time
  • Give your attention to Lean activities
  • Ask your direct reports about their Lean activities
  • Track Lean measures
  • Support Lean teams by attending kick-offs and report-outs, and by asking about their progress; offer your help if they run into obstacles that they need help with
  • Stay the course as your employees test your resolve with their resistance
  • Stay committed in the face of challenging circumstances and in the midst of your own fatigue
  • Seek counsel on how to implement and sustain Lean.


Commitment to Lean in the office leads to constancy.


#4 Constancy

Constancy—being unwavering in purpose and focus—is the final ingredient to success with Lean in the office. Implementing Lean in the office takes time, just like in production. It is a race of endurance, not a sprint.

In this race, your endurance will be tested. In the face of fatigue, boredom, chaos—whatever is thrown your way—you will need to provide the constancy to make Lean take root and grow. If you don’t provide that constancy, no one will.

Without your constancy, your organization joins the “flavor-of-the-month” club. The implications of joining that club include lack of trust and increased resistance.

Each time you abandon a change initiative, you tell your employees that you are not necessarily committed to your word. That’s dangerous because it can erode trust. It may make sense to do course corrections, and communicating the reasons for that can help mitigate the effect on trust.

Another problem with a lack of constancy is that the next time you try to launch a new initiative, you may encounter more resistance. People don’t want to join the flavor-of-the-month club, so they will resist the new changes, if only to test your resolve.

In constancy, you must also be open to influence and feedback. Without that openness, you will not be able to adjust to new conditions or improve. This is entirely compatible with constancy.

Constancy. Stay committed.

[1] Actually, this is true for all change efforts, organizational and personal. For a fascinating discussion of this phenomena, go to http://www.fastcompany.com/articles/2007/01/change-or-die.html and read “Change or Die”

[2]  Suzanne P. Nimocks, Robert L. Rosiello, Oliver Wright (2005). Managing Overhead Costs. The McKinsey Quarterly, 2, 108.

[3] Mary Beth O’Neill, Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach To Engaging Leaders With Their Challenges (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), 26.

[4] Adapted from: Mary Beth O’Neill, Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach To Engaging Leaders With Their Challenges (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), 26.

[5] Robert Lenzer, Stephen S. Johnson, “Seeing Things As They Really Are,” Forbes 159 (March 10, 1997). Retrieved from http://proquest.umi.com/login. Document ID: 11131941.

[6] TJ Larkin, Sandar Larkin, Communicating Change: Winning Employee Support For New Business Goals (McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994) xi-xii.

[7] Bill Jensen, Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage In A World Of More, Better, Faster (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Publishing, 2000) 73-74.

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