In Lean transformation by Mike Thelen

Each month, one of our guest authors will write about a topic related to companies and organizations around the world from a Lean philosophy perspective. These guest lecturers come from different parts of the planet and they all have extensive international experience. With a vast know-how in terms of change management, these specialists have all developed their activities and increased their companies’ growth.

Mike ThelenThis month´s guest article "In Lean Transformation" is about how to use Lean-tools in your activity. The author is the American Lean-expert Mike Thelen at Wells Enterprises, Blue Bunny with long working experience.

Where will the “human-side” of Lean hit you? Mike Thelen shares experiences with determining the system’s evolvement in a Lean transformation.

As is the case with any Lean implementation in a Traditional environment, culture (or more specifically culture change) will be the most difficult obstacle to success. While a company can hire consultants, develop work teams, and even begin Lean initiatives, if the company only "talks the talk,” the initiative soon becomes just that, talk.

Lately I have been involved (engrossed?) with determining the level of Lean understanding and evolution in my primary facility. The factory has traveled down a very bumpy road, has seen some fantastic achievements, but still faces a significant uphill climb in the pursuit of Lean. The manufacturing area has attained what management considered success, and is in danger of stalling. Other areas of the organization are now growing concerned as our Lean focus begins to shift from manufacturing to support areas of the building.

As this focus shifts, constant reflection has become more critical. The goal is to keep manufacturing on the continuous improvement path while shifting that focus. At this juncture of the Lean implementation process, the level of Lean understanding becomes readily apparent.

A successful transition to a Lean Enterprise is very uncommon. The last published estimates claim between two and five percent of all attempts succeed. To restate: a minimum of 95% of all attempted organizational Lean implementations fail. Why do so many attempts fail? The hours of discussion generated on a single online forum concerning this question are staggering. Yet no one has been able to offer a root cause of failure that all can agree on. Thus, opinion based on experience is all that can be presented.

If success is being achieved, why is it so difficult to keep moving forward? Success breeds complacency. Why is General Motors in danger of being passed by Toyota? Why is it so difficult to achieve a perfect season in any sport? People relax. People enjoy a level of comfort. When defined success is achieved, it is human nature to reap the benefits of what has been sowed. Due to competitive spirit, it is also easier to chase than to be chased.

Reducing cycle time by the first 50% is {generally} easy. The second 50% is more difficult and each successive improvement becomes exponentially more demanding. What happens is people learn the tools presented, but do not learn the concepts behind the tools. Without learning the concepts, they have no opportunity to learn the theory behind those concepts.

To clarify, consider 5S. Most people are familiar with the tool of 5S. Those S’s are (English version) Sort, Store (Simplify), Shine, Standardize and Sustain. Most people believe it is merely a housekeeping tool (many believe it is merely a torture device designed by the Lean leader or consultant!). Some begin to understand that it is a method to ensure the tools are there as needed. Very few begin to relate 5S to problem solving (if something isn’t where it should be, why?) Even fewer can drive 5S back to the heart of Lean: Respect for People and Continuous Improvement.

Lean can, at times, be described as the shortest distance between two points. We learn this in basic math as the “straight line.” The more distance traveled beyond the straight line, the more waste occurs in the system. However, this is a “tools-based” approach to Lean. While it will reduce waste and make a business more responsive to the customer, it reaches a ‘success point’. If the product moves along the straight line, “we’re a Lean organization!” However, Lean has concept and theory as well.

The next phase in this evolution of the straight line is realizing that the line occurs in 3-D, not 2-D. Lean is not limited to the manufacturing floor. It is not limited to physical processing. Lean has a goal of continuous improvement through the entire value stream, from suppliers to customers, both internal and external. Therefore, while Leaning a department (such as manufacturing) is use of the tool, Leaning the value-stream will help understand the concept.

If an organization is able to move from the manufacturing floor to the support chains, it is very difficult to sustain the Lean initiative (remember the successive reductions becoming exponentially more difficult?) Management views the initiative as a victory and everyone down the “chain” begins to relax. The drive to improve lessens when faced with the increasingly challenging problems. Suddenly, it isn’t as easy to reap rewards. People have stretched to the level subconsciously developed as “success” (often the definition pre-established as Lean) and do not see a need to strive any further.

Thus, the final phase of Lean is not achieved, the theory. Think of our straight line. Yesterday, we taught ourselves that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line (tool). Today, we taught ourselves to view the line in three dimensions, not just two (concept). The theory that drives Lean is based on Respect for People and Continuous Improvement. In order to achieve the theory with our straight line, we must forge into tomorrow. What lies beyond 3-D? For Science Fiction fans, try this perspective: how can we “fold” time and space to shorten that spatial distance? That is Lean, Continuous Improvement. No satisfaction. Resist the temptation to focus on yesterday, instead choosing to focus on tomorrow.

The system’s evolution depends on commitment to the principles of Lean: Continous Improvement and Respect for People. Tying the principles to the Human Design Model (Plan, Do, Check, Act – to satisfy all Customer Needs) give focus and direction. That direction is clearly defined in the “A3”. Using A3’s as a normal function of business creates synergy throughout the organization.

The REAL power of Lean exists when everyone is challenged and no one allows an “unLean” activity to proceed. No matter how well an organization is using the Lean tools, if decisions are allowed that are contradictory to Lean concept and theory, that organization has failed to truly grasp Lean. This is what Jeffrey Liker was alluding to in The Toyota Way, "…If you are not the CEO and top management is interested only in short-term financial results…”

Over time, the level of understanding throughout an organization becomes readily apparent using this philosophy. There is no Lean company. There should never be a Lean company. Lean is the pursuit of the ideal state – 1-piece flow, safe, defect-free, no waste, with immediate feedback. There will always be problems and those problems should continuously drive a business to improve.

There is no magic pill for Lean initiatives. The Lean process requires time, commitment, and determination. Companies that cannot envision the long-term commitment to Lean, and only use the tools for short-term gain, will achieve some limited success. However, without the culture supporting those tools, the Lean initiative will fail; becoming the "flavor of the week" that everyone knew would not last.

Mike Thelen is Continuous Improvement Leader at Le Mars, IA based Wells Enterprises, the makers of Blue Bunny ice cream. Since 1998, he has journeyed down a Lean path.

Starting with cellular design and now/next flow, progressing to value streams and supplier kanban, he constantly strives to see, and show others, both the forest and the trees. Utilizing Hoshin Kanri (policy deployment) to define the Ideal State and showing Respect for People, he has led continuous improvement efforts in positions from front-line supervision to organizational Lean leadership, including Six Sigma Greenbelt certification through Honeywell International.

In addition to training and guiding all levels of an organization, Mike also works with local secondary, post-secondary and civic organizations to spread the concepts and theories of continuous improvement to a broader audience. He founded the Aberdeen Lean Forum, a dues-free monthly consortium in 2007, and co-founded the Siouxland Lean Consortium in 2011. Mike can be reached at

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