Look Before You Lean

Another book on my December reading binge was Look Before You Lean by “Employee X.” It was recommended by my friend and fellow curious cat, Steve Holt, in a quick Tweet. I took a look, and the topic seemed right up my alley.  Indeed it is.  Here is an opening quote

[H]ow … does Lean … continue to thrive when companies hat sign up for it have been droppingn out at a rate of more than 90%? There are people, even among Lean’s most ardent advocates, who have conscientiously tried to deal with this daunting statistic. 

That quote gives a good sense of what the book does. It’s a look at a Lean implementation from an employee in a company going through a Lean initiative, rather than from the eyes of a consultant or maybe the internal champion of such an implementation. He’s kept himself anonymous because he is rather negative as to the thinking of the corporate leaders, and he is particularly negative about the way the consultants approached the project. It is definitely framed as a cautionary tale: the author is hoping others will read this before they dive in. I am pretty sure he isn’t saying, “Don’t do it.” He’s saying, “Think.” and “Don’t do it this way."

The story isn’t all negative, because the author did a lot of independent research about Lean and could see where it could/should work. I appreciated this aspect of the writing just as much as the cautionary tale that motivates the book.  From his perspective, Lean did not fly at his company - and it doesnt fly at many companies. He pins the blame on both the company leads for abdicating their thinking to the consultants. And he blames the consultants for a roughshod implementation - with plenty of examples of what sound like over-the-top activities.  

I pulled some suggestions or food for thought from “Employee X” and the book. Some of these are for the presumed audience of people who are looking at lean. There are other ideas here for just about any change initiative. And there are definitely ideas for consultants (me included). 

  • Leaders must remain engaged. Specifically, leaders cannot abdicate responsibility for running the organization.  That’s their job.  (Sounds like I still have Deming in my head.)
  • Don’t forget that organizations are made of people. No matter how interesting the process stuff is, it is still executed and followed and gotten-around by the people. It’s a big challenge of Lean and other process-focused approaches to the world. Or maybe it is a challenge of the people drawn to these disciplines.
  • Consultants may be helpful, but they aren’t all perfect. Look for the ones that are confident but have some sense of humility.
  • Be careful of over-reliance on The Way It’s Done. Be on the lookout for new opportunities and new ways of approaching an initiative. Be on particular lookout for signals that the initiative isn’t going as expected. Maybe even expect some failures. Learn and adjust.
  • Don’t treat people like idiots or assume “people don’t like change.” They don’t like being changed. This is also one of those opportunities: where are they stuck, and what about your initiative has left them behind?  (Scary discussion of change resisters "antibodies” that must be purged from the organization for the change to succeed.)
  • Assign a Vice President of Devil’s Advocacy to be the corporate contrarian (page 106). In other words find a way to make it okay for people to disagree without being seen as an antibody to be purged. I have fond memories of Orbiting the Corporate Hairball and the idea of a “corporate anomaly” in a leadership position.

Give this book a read if you are interested in change management or in the various continuous improvement methodologies like Lean, Theory of Constraints and others.  Or if your company is thinking about implementing one of these approaches.

And ask questions. 

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