Why does Lean & Kaizen not work in my business?

In this insightful exploration, delve into the potential reasons why Lean and Kaizen strategies may not resonate with your business.
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I found this course very informative and easy to understand. I am just getting started in working with supply chains/manufacturing and enjoyed this free course.
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It’s common knowledge that our society began this global transition from agriculture and handcraft-oriented economies to economies oriented on mechanized manufacturing with The Industrial Revolution back in the eighteenth century. That was especially vivid in the textile industry, agriculture, and glass factories.

All these changes came along with different types of problems that the companies haven’t dealt with in the past, which is why lean and kaizen entered the game of business. Since then, those methodologies facilitated improving manufacturing and management processes beyond our recognition. Even so, there are cases when leam seems not to be applicable. But before talking about why it’s happening let’s describe what lean is exactly.

What is lean?

The lean methodology was created by Toyota in 1970 and focuses on manufacturing and management.  Some would say it is a way of thinking, a culture in an organization of any type. Its purpose is to improve performance in terms of productivity, quality, time reduction, and costs. In other words, lean focuses on providing quality products or services at the lowest possible cost of production.

Lean also focuses on the elimination of unnecessary elements that do not add value to the process, in other words, waste, such as:

  • Overproduction
  • Inventory 
  • Waiting time
  • Transport
  • Over-processing
  • Movements
  • Defects

This methodology lays on the principle of continuous improvement. It not only aims at eliminating the sources of inefficiency but also works for the company to get better results.

Just like other concepts and techniques, Lean has limits but if properly applied it can make all the difference between a struggling company and a successful company.

What is Kaizen?

On the other hand, we have the principle of Kaizen. It was introduced for the first time in the book  ‘Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success’ (McGraw Hill) and was recognized as one of the most important strategy concepts in organizations.

Kaizen refers to improvement in personal and professional life. The different companies that have introduced this approach often have superior results compared to the companies which haven’t.

The Kaizen approach has 5 principles:

  1. Know your customer
  2. Let it flow
  3. Go to Gemba
  4. Empower people 
  5. Be transparent

The main focus of Kaizen is continuous improvement, which centers on small changes to increment the impact over time. Kaizen is introduced in organizations as a philosophy instead of a methodology. The changes start with the mindset and values of the people in the company, then proceed with the changes in the processes, thus making the general activities of the company transform in an easier way.

How do Lean and Kaizen work together?

Any change can be difficult, especially when more than one person is involved. One way to make the transition from one thing to another is to start by making small changes and preparing the people involved instead of changing all in one day without any notice. In other words, we can say we used the Lean and Kaizen principles and methodologies to implement changes and adjustments in organizations in the easiest and most efficient way.

The real transformation in companies and organizations began when Lean methodology connected with the Kaizen philosophy.

As we mentioned before, Lean focuses on the elimination of waste. Meanwhile, Kaizen focuses on continuous improvement. By combining these two principles, any company can achieve its goals and at the same time improve its processes, efficiency, quality, and customer relationship.

Okay so, these two principles separately are excellent methodologies to implement in companies and work perfectly together for the improvement of strategies and processes. But for some businesses, they don’t seem to work at all.

Why are some companies failing in the implementation of Lean and Kaizen principles?

Plenty of studies have been made in an attempt to reveal the main reasons why companies fail in their lean and kaizen projects. Depending on a source up to 90% of companies in the end are unable to adopt them fully or partially.

To round up the vast array of factors when your lean journey may go wrong, you may narrow down to five main causes of it happening: lack of direction and vision followed by lack of perseverance, lack of adherence for part of the employees, perceiving lean as a project with a final result, and last but not least blindly using the ready-made lean guidelines.

To understand a little bit more we will analyze each situation.

1. Lack of direction and vision in running the projects

The importance of sharing the vision and direction of the company with all employees is the key factor in achieving success or not.

In order to accomplish a project, a plan, or a strategy it is important that each part of the system share a common goal to work together as a team, and this way the results will be positive.

  2. Lack of perseverance

Nowadays people are used to quick and fast results. The focus of attention is becoming shorter and shorter even more with the passing of the days and this can be reflected in the innovation of technology as in social media.

Companies normally have short and long-term projects and this lack of perseverance has made the stress on short-term projects a lot stronger leaving long-term ones unattended. But it is important to connect all the short projects with a long-term common goal. When a company doesn’t follow this order, valuable resources and time can be lost.

  3. Lack of adherence from employees of the company

When the culture and values of the company are not involved in the implementation it almost guarantees its failure. As we mentioned before, kaizen reflects a state of mind more than just a method so it is important to share the compromise among all the employees in the company. 

To perform the correct implementation of Lean and Kaizen in your business the company should be considered as a whole, this way it may be easier to achieve the wanted changes.

4. Perceiving lean as a project with a final result

A big number of companies that make attempts to implement lean do what is very natural for any business: create a plan, a sequence of activities they need to undergo within some allocated time. And at its finish, they will achieve results that will render their business lean.

But in reality, this kind of approach is exactly what will bring disappointment, because at best a company will see some fragmented and superficial changes easily reversible. Even worse, that can convince whoever tries to use lean that it doesn’t work or it doesn’t fit their type of business.

5. Blindly using the ready-made lean guidelines

You have probably come across plenty of lean techniques, methodologies, guidelines, and recommendations that look ready to implement in your company. All you need to do is to start using the knowledge you got from books or blog articles.

It’s true that lean philosophy is an endless source of extremely useful tools. But they will not work or will bring the very minimum change if the company leadership team doesn’t learn first what the company problems really are and what is causing them. Then it would be possible to develop a way of problem-solving using lean that would work for each specific case.

All the issues described above are probably the most popular causes of companies quitting the adoption of Lean & Kaizen and the list is far from complete. But it certainly doesn’t mean that Lean thinking is too far from real life or is just another modern trend supported by heavy marketing.

On the contrary, Lean proved to be the universal remedy for virtually any organization as long as it has a clear vision of why it needs Lean. And once the decision to practice it has been made Lean should become a part of company culture, a new way of thinking, but also a set of new methodologies that are used permanently. After all, Lean is not a purpose but rather a continuous process.

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