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business, culture, deming, improvement, leadership, lean, lean thinking, management, tps, transformation, Uncategorized

Lean: What Most People Miss

The first step is transformation of the individual . . . The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people.

W. Edwards Deming

I reflect on a regular basis about why companies struggle with the application of lean within their businesses. Countless organizations have tried or are trying to deploy lean in some form but, after achieving some early gains, most become frustrated and disappointed with the effort.

With countless books, blogs, and seminars available on the subject, along with the openness of Toyota to show how TPS works for them, it is difficult to understand why organizations continue to have trouble achieving sustained levels of improvement that are possible with a successful deployment.

The more I reflect on the problem, the more I come back to one word: transformation. Lean doesn’t happen without significant change, and failing to understand that fundamental transformation is required – both personal and organizational – will lead to frustration and mediocrity over the long term.


The first time I toured a Toyota factory, I noticed several people in the group from a competing automaker. At one point during the day, I asked one of the people running the program why they allow a competitor to see their operation. He told me that, because of the help Toyota received from Ford many years ago as they were trying to rebuild and compete on a global basis, they still feel indebted and want to give back by helping others. As we continued to talk, though, he also mentioned that most people who take the tour focus on the “things” they see rather than comprehending what it is that makes these things work. They rarely ask about the culture, leadership focus, and thinking that makes Toyota successful. What he was basically saying is that they don’t recognize the need for transformation.

BusinessDictionary.Com defines transformation as, “a process of profound and radical change that orients an organization in a new direction and takes it to an entirely new level of effectiveness.”

Far too often, companies attempt to deploy lean on top of existing leadership, development, hiring, and promotion systems that causes conflict and friction between lean and the traditional approach to business. This conflict results in either no long-term improvement or actually making things worse.

This is what I believe is the problem with six sigma. It is a problem-solving methodology that does not demand transformation. It remains popular because leaders can delegate problem-solving without changing the way they lead, hire, promote, and develop people. While some problems are attacked and resolved, the lack of a change in culture means that many other problems are never even seen as problems, and these are the ones that keep a company locked in mediocrity.


There are a number of reasons why organizations miss transformation as a key element of a lean deployment. Although understanding and addressing the causes is critical, it won’t be easy. In true Catch 22 fashion, one needs to undergo transformation to understand the importance of transformation.

Some thoughts on the reasons for, and potential countermeasures to, helping people appreciate the need for transformation include:

  • A Lack of Understanding: Someone who has never experienced (or even seen) success with lean is likely going to have difficulty understanding the differences from a traditional way of doing business. This type of person will probably not recognize how significant the subtle differences are between a successful lean deployment and his or her own situation.An experienced lean coach who is not afraid to challenge people at all levels is one way to help others develop an understanding and appreciation for transformation. A coach or advisor without heavy experience in lean, leadership and business, or is afraid to challenge executives is likely to focus on where he or she feels the most comfortable: the tools. Unfortunately, focusing only on the tools of lean is never going to result in long-term change;
  • Unwillingness to Change: It is extremely difficult to help someone learn something new when they do not believe in the need to change. A leader who is somewhat satisfied with current performance and believes that the current strategy is acceptable will mostly like not be open to learning about transformation.

    It is difficult to convince someone who feels they have been successful that they need to change. Leaders get to their position by doing things a certain way and many do see no reason to do anything differently. This is the most difficult situation to handle because without an openness to learning, it is unlikely a person will give any time to talk about lean or transformation. The only chance to get through to this type of person is to spend a significant amount of time with him or her to develop a relationship of mutual respect where the coach can begin to understand and demonstrate where change is needed.

Changing culture requires changing systems like leadership development, promotion, hiring, and setting goals and objectives. The transformation needs to happen from the systems down to the relationships and conversations to drive change in the way people think and approach work. Without this, lean will not succeed in driving sustained improvement in performance that most people expect.

About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.


2 thoughts on “Lean: What Most People Miss

  1. Thanks Gregg,

    Its always a pleasure seing how you manage to pinpoint the challenges we see and live every day. Wish you all the best, and give me a ring if you find yourself back in Norway.


    Posted by Lars | May 18, 2018, 6:57 am

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