August 18

How to Begin Your Lean Journey: 5 Steps to Making an Impact


“How to begin your lean journey” is a common question asked by many of those new to lean. This guide will show you what to do when beginning your lean program.

How to Begin Your Lean Journey? Here’s Where Not to Start

There are three areas that I see as problematic. They’re mistakes which are made a lot. They are:

  1. Choosing lean because it’s piqued your interest, or someone else is doing it
  2. Implementing 5S on its own and thinking that’s all lean is
  3. Sending everyone on a lean course

Now, the above bullet points in their own right, are not bad. It’s just that they shouldn’t be the starting and end point for your lean journey.

Here’s what I mean.

Choosing Lean Because it’s Piqued Your Interest or Someone Else is Doing It

Like any change management initiative that involves the commitment of its employees, you need more than just an interest in something.

Employees need to understand the big burning “why?”.

Why are we doing this?

If it’s because we want to see how things go, then it will absolutely fail.

If it’s because you want to be more efficient but have no intention to lead it – and just watch your employees do it – it will fail.

Each Employee needs to know “why” for the following reasons:

What this change programme means to me individually? Will it mean more work or less work? Will it jeopardise my job? Can it offer a progression pathway? Why can’t I just carry on doing what I’ve always done – why change at all? Will my working conditions be better or worse? How does it fit in the bigger picture of what the business wants to do?

Getting the details right both on a personal level and what it means to the business, is crucial to lean working.

Picture the opposite – “OK, we’re just going to give this thing called Lean a go, because our competitors are doing it…” This answer doesn’t give enough detail into:

  • What lean is about
  • Why the business really needs to do it
  • How it should be adopted
  • How long it should take
  • What success looks like – how do we know when it’s worked?
  • What it means to each individual employee

I once was reading a book on change management (whose name escapes me, I’m afraid). In it, the manager spent 90% of the conversation, talking about why the business needs to change and what it means to the business (safe guarding jobs, better market positioning, more competitive, etc)… and only 10% of the time talking about what change means to the individual.

That same person went home and discussed this with his wife. He spent 90% of the time talking about how change affects him. 10% of the time, the conversation depicted why his company had to change.

The bottom line is this:

You need a compelling reason to deliver change in any business. This change must be linked to a programme and end goal. In turn, the employees should know how they play their part in it. And they should be given the time to learn and adjust.

Otherwise, you’ll be trying to implement lean tools, with little buy-in from people within the business.

Implementing 5S on Its Own

The fact is that 5S normally fails. (If you don’t know what 5S is, I’ve written an extensive article on what it is and how to implement it)

That being said, 5S may be simple, but it takes discipline. What i normally find is that teams are told to organise their workplace in much the same way they’d tidy their shed once every few years. They then get given an audit sheet, and are audited once every often.

This then feels more of a militant operation: They have to tidy up and then get monitored. To be honest, most people can’t understand why they have to follow 5S and indeed why it has to be so painful and ‘irrelevant’ to what they do.

As long as it’s seen as simply a tidy up, then it won’t bring lasting change and improved efficiency.

5S works best when there’s a genuine reason to make change.

Rather than ‘clean and organise your area,” there’s more of a chance people keep sustaining it if they can link it to something like:

  • Reduce lost time of 10 hours per week or…
  • reduce distance travelled by 50 metres per month, or
  • Work on an improvement idea every day…

That’s why 5S should be one action item in a list of lean improvement actions, all set within a lean transformation project plan.

In this instance, you can apply the reason for doing 5S, because it’s linked to the bigger picture. We’ll talk about this later in the guide.

In addition, some believe that 5S is all that lean is. This is incorrect. In fact it’s one of many tools, to help improve productivity and reduce waste, whilst adding more value to your customers… (And whilst developing and empowering your employees to make change happen)

Sending Everyone on a Lean Course

Whilst this is a great idea, there’s one problem. The reality is that most of what you learn is forgotten.

Lean, although it’s not largely complicated, it does take some experience to implement effectively.

Having a number of trained lean people that have zero experience can increase the chances of the lean program either not gaining enough momentum and then petering out… or the improvements being not as impactful.

If you’re starting lean, surely you want the biggest bang for buck – something that will provide a business transformation for the better? Otherwise, you’re in danger of just trying it out, which is another mistake, which we’ve touched on already.

It could mean that you spend a lot of time and money, training employees on lean concepts… but you won’t get past 5S and small unrelated kaizen improvements – and no step change results that really propel you forward in the eyes of your customers.

Lean done correctly gives a big change. Is it fair to ask this level of change to be implemented by those that have just gone on a lean program?

Sure, you need people that can get stuck in and learn by doing. But you also need a coach who has experience of doing it. The Japanese call these Senseis.

It is the Sensei’s job to guide and coach. And once people have learned the new way, they become coaches to their teams. This model follows on and on, until everyone is impacting the business – being coached and coaching others.

At this point the critical mass has been achieved, and the original Sensei or coach has done their job: There’s enough experience and knowledge to keep things moving in the longer term and to make strategic change happen.

5 Steps to Getting Things off on the Right Foot

That said, let’s explore 5 tips to implementing lean and to get more traction.

1. What’s the Problem?

This is the burning platform. Answer this question and you have a compelling reason to implement lean.

Typical powerful problems could be:

  • Current lead times are crippling our ability to deliver fast enough to our customers
  • We have strong sales, but can’t scale our operations to support this growth
  • Our operating profits are dwindling and we need to become financially stronger
  • Customer complaints are growing
  • We’re producing too many poor products which are destroying our credibility

There may be others, but the above are the common burning issues to start lean.

The trick is to start with one problem. Don’t get hung up detailing a complete list. Pick the main reason that your business needs to change. Remember, lean is not a dip-your-toe-in initiative.

It’s a long term strategic decision that will drive how teams work together. how to streamline operations, and what success will look like.

2. Identify the Barriers to Change

Arguably, there are three common barriers to implementing a lean change program:

Know-how – If you don’t have enough understanding and knowledge of lean in the business, then you can’t implement it successfully

Leadership Support – It goes without saying that the senior leadership team must actively support the program. By actively, i mean lead the program; do their bit, coach teams, and help lead the change effort. It will be both the behaviours and activities that they commit to every day that will ensure the lean program is either a success or failure.

Standing there expecting other people to “do lean” will ensure that the program will peter out in a whimper. It may sound obvious, but I’ve seen this played out time and time again by managers at all levels.

The Culture of your business – your current culture can be a big barrier to change. Culture is how people interact; how they behave and communicate; the values of the business. It’s normally a reflection of how they’re managed from the top.

To summarise, culture is largely what happens when management aren’t looking – it’s ‘how things are done around here.’

Naturally, some cultures will be aligned more to a lean program; others won’t.

For instance…

  • if people are scared of stepping forward in case they get blamed by a manager for a mistake, it’ll be hard to embrace something new.
  • If managers are weak and don’t interact effectively with staff, you may have a highly deflated and demotivated workforce that won’t exactly take up the baton to do something different.
  • If it’s a silo business, where no one cares too much about other people and departments, then it’ll be a culture shock to jump straight in to encouraging teamwork and cross functional problem solving
  • If not many people have been asked and praised for coming up with good ideas, then this too will be a hurdle to overcome

The point is, it’s worth understanding what your culture is like and the barriers that may arise, when implementing lean, BEFORE you start the program.


So you can be one step ahead and plan for how to overcome these hurdles.

What do you need to do?

How can you kickstart the program?

What messages to provide to the workforce?

How do you want your leaders to act and lead from now on?

How can you see that this new way of leading is actually happening?

How can you reward this new way of working and provide positive feedback?

What objections will you face, and what are the answers? How can you show that you mean what you say?

3. Assign Champions

No program, whether it be lean, six sigma, or anything else, will survive without clear leaders driving it.

Everyone needs to play their part.

But there also has to be a champion and sometimes even a guiding team.

A lean champion ensures the following:

  • Sets and maintains actions and goals
  • Keeps these activities to a clear time frame (Answering “Who is doing what by when…”)
  • The champion also ensures that the goals and activities align with the strategy of the project, and also overcomes the main challenge lean was implemented to overcome
  • They help coach other leaders and teams to drive continuous improvement and implement the lean tools
  • Help keep the lean project progressing by motivating teams and leaders to keep going

The key role of the champion is to ensure that the project keeps progressing. Change should match the pace of the culture and the targets.

It’s the champion that guides the teams through this.

That’s why it’s important to have a clear understanding of who the champion is and how they will interact with the business…. particularly when it comes to managing the project across functions and into other teams.

4. Select the First Target For Improvement

You will more than likely produce many different products or services. In the traditional methodology, businesses are seen as functional silos, covering different departments like Engineering, Production, Finance, Marketing, Sales, Despatch and so on.

Each department probably has their own individual goals and improvement ideas. None of which are often linked to other departments.

For example, the sales department may need to achieve an extra $1 million of sales this year…

The Production Department must achieve 99% on time delivery performance.

Sales keep bringing in the sales, but no-one has thought about capacity of operations and how much can actually be achieved. It’s not sales’ job to think about it. Yet production never get visibility from sales as to what’s about to hit them.

This imbalance can cause all sorts of problems and is pretty common across many businesses.

Further Silos

Within these departments, you may also have further silo’s. For instance, within manufacturing, you may have assembly, CNC Machining, Welding, and so on.

Again, each of these teams try to implement improvements on their own to benefit their own teams.

Some improvements can make things worse for others.

This silo thinking is not efficient and effective.

Improvement is Always Cross-Functional

In lean, we map how information and products flow through the business. This covers all the process steps from taking an order, through to placing an order for material, receiving that order and making the product.

You can see that by doing this, we’re not interested in silo’d thinking. We want to see exactly how things get done:

  • How information is passed on
  • How products are made
  • How different departments work together
  • How things can be improved

In order to do this, we pick the most important group of products. These are the ones that may tick one or some of the following:

  • Contribute most to the bottom line
  • Are the highest selling products or services
  • The brightest stars that will grow over time and eventually will supersede your existing cash cows
  • Causing the biggest headaches in terms of quality, cost, delivery
  • Those affecting poor delivery the most

Whichever your reasons, choose the value stream that will have the biggest positive impact.

Step 1: Map the value stream – How things currently are (from end-to-end)

Step 2: Identify where the wasteful steps are and how to improve them

Step 3: Create a future state value stream map, showing the improved way of working and the positive gains

Step 4: Repeat this for the next value stream

5. And Put That Scatter Gun Down

There are a number of so called gurus out there (you can find them readily on Youtube), that teach this small improvement methodology across the business, and promote that it’s all you need to do.

Small, scattered and silo’d improvements don’t provide you with the real impact that lean should bring. They have a part to play for everyday improvement. But when it comes to making strategic improvements, you have to make big step changes as well.

Focus on end-to-end value stream improvements. This is where you can make aligned, step-changes across the entire business, in a focused and shared way.

Oh, and don’t forget to find your Sensei – a coach that has been there and done it, so you can learn faster and make it permanent.


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