Is your lean initiative sticky or stuck? In 25 years of facilitating lean transformations in a variety of business and industry environments I have discovered that many a well-intended business owner strays from the lean path after the excitement and adrenaline rush has subsided. Why is lean not sticky enough for some?

I was reading a book recently that sheds some light on an answer to that question. The title of the book is Sticky Faith. The researchers of Sticky Faith found that a young person's faith was strong while the person was surrounded by a support group of like-minded people, but that it weakened when that circle was broken. It is easy to be strong when you have the strength of others to rely upon in difficult and challenging times. At least it is in regards to lean. A lean initiative remains strong as long as there is a support mechanism in place to keep it fresh and always at the top of the priority list. As soon as distractions are allowed to creep onto the priority list, lean gets moved to a lower status and eventually falls off the list all together. How does that happen?

Arrival syndrome

The "I have arrived" syndrome is one reason lean can get stuck. That is a position that some leaders are lulled into after being on the lean journey for a while. They set short-term objectives, achieve those objectives, and believe that nothing more need be done. What those leaders failed to understand is that lean is not about arriving at a destination, it is about a journey of continuously improving processes. You should never feel like you have "arrived."

In my last article I highlighted Hallagan Manufacturing of Newark, New York. The CEO, Steve Hallagan, continues to harbor the belief that his company has yet to become all they can be. That is a healthy attitude to take because then each day is approached with the intent of making it a better day than the one before by discovering a new opportunity for improvement. If you don't approach lean with that attitude, it will very likely get stuck.

Employee challenge

The lean journey at Hunter Trim and Cabinets has been featured in several articles over the past three years. They have far exceeded the objectives that Dustin Hunter established at their launch. Early in 2016, Dustin felt like the initiative had stalled and that the staff, including himself, had become complacent. They were certainly enjoying great success, but there was more to be done.

Not wanting lean to get stuck, Dustin embarked on a challenge for all of the staff that exceeded any that I have encountered or heard of. The program they have in place challenges every employee to spend the first hour of every day working on improvements. Then they allow 15 minutes to spotlight the improvements at one process. Dustin put that program in place at a time when demand was increasing and on-time delivery was faltering. This bold program proved its worth. The hour of lost available time was made up after the first week. The staff was producing more in seven hours than they had been producing in eight. Dustin knew they hadn't arrived, and like Steve Hallagan, he knows they will never arrive.

Backsliding

What happens when a leader believes his company has arrived? The staff and processes begin to slip backwards. There is a migration to the old comfort zone. That is the case at one of the companies we worked with a couple of years ago.

Their initiative had been successful during the months of our facilitation, and it continued on a successful path with new, energetic, and passionate leadership in place. Their sticky initiative started to get stuck however when one of the key positions in every successful lean transformation was vacated without a replacement. That position was the Lean Coordinator. Despite our recommendations, the general manager felt that his subordinate leaders could manage the change process going forward so there was no need for a replacement. They had arrived - or so he thought.

The GM's assessment seemed to be a valid one for several months after we completed the initial phase of the lean transformation. I continued to receive weekly reports of the measurements that had been put in place. Revenue Per Labor Hour (RPLH), one of the key improvement indicators, continued to increase for about 10 months. Then it plateaued. There was always a reason for the stagnation. There always is. Next week is always going to be a better week than the current one.

Well, long story short, RPLH started to decline. Lead time extended. Overtime increased. All of the factors that were barriers to success before the lean initiative had gradually crept back in. Why? Because the person who would have been responsible for keeping Lean Thinking in the forefront was not there.  After more than a year of excuses and denial, the company reinstated the Lean Coordinator position in July. Is that going to be enough to stem the tide? Not very likely unless the LC can get the staff engaged again. Lean is not a one-man show. One person trying to muscle lean through an unaccepting audience is like a person trying to push a locomotive uphill. This person is going to need some help. I hope the GM recognizes that before lean gets stuck again.

Distractions

Lean can get stuck due to a variety of other distractions. Among them are personnel changes, similar to the Lean Coordinator vacancy described above. Leadership changes can be a huge distraction. If a new leader doesn't have an understanding and appreciation of lean, chances are it won't be the number one item on the day-planner page.

Cash flow issues are another distraction. This is a common one for a company whose management waited too long to get the lean initiative started. Their commitment might be strong, but the checkbook is weak. The danger associated with any distraction is that, in spite of good intentions of returning to lean when the distraction subsides, lean winds up so far out of sight and mind that it can't find its way to the surface again.

Lean is not a flavor-of-the-month or a fix for an ailment that is currently plaguing a company. Sticky lean is lean for life.

Jim Lewis has worked in the furniture industry for 40 years with a special emphasis on facilitating the transformation process for businesses embracing the Lean Business Model.