What is the Key to Lean's Long-Term Success?

I recently had the opportunity to speak with both Bill Baker and Ken Rolfes about their new book, Lean for the Long Term: Sustainment is a Myth, Transformation is Reality. During our conversation, I asked them: "Why did you write this book? What was unique about your experiences?" Here are their complete separate responses:

William (Bill) Baker: When Ken and I began this book, we found we had been in different industries during the past 40 years, but we had witnessed similar transformations that had started strong with management commitment, but when the low-hanging fruit had been harvested and/or a new executive was hired, the transformation was derailed and lost its momentum. It seemed many times lean was viewed as a “project” executed by a manufacturing manager or continuous improvement leader, but it did not have full-time support by upper management. So we researched organizations that have been on the Lean transformation journey for 30 to35 years to discover their approach to share in Lean for the Long Term: Sustainment is a Myth, Transformation is Reality.

Ken Rolfes: Having been an early adopter of the Toyota Production System methodologies we call "Lean," I have had the opportunity to benefit from Lean strategies in multiple industries and companies. I have seen businesses transform with Lean and then lose it. We wanted to understand why so many Lean initiatives start off strong, plateau, and then recede as well as how can that be prevented. What we found is the Lean transformations that fail to last were not transformations after all. They were high-energy attempts to rally the organization to action, and when the energy is spent, so goes the transformation effort. A Lean transformation is, in reality, a different management system. Lean for the Long Term challenges our organization and management system models.

Business transformation is currently on most CEOs' agenda, and General Electric (GE) is only one example. GE’s announcement in April that it plans to sell off most of its big finance unit, GE Capital, represents one of a number of moves in the transformation of the company under the CEO Jeffrey Immelt. Mr. Immelt described it as a lengthy and often humbling corporate journey recognizing that GE’s real strength lies in industrial engineering rather than financial engineering.

A few years ago, when he was speaking at Stanford Business School about following Jack Welsh after his tenure at GE, he stated “The trick, if you follow someone famous, is that you’ve got to drive change every day without ever pretending anything was ever wrong,” This is the premise of the Lean management system described in Lean for the Long Term. Most are familiar that core idea of Lean is to maximize customer value, but many lean practitioners are hung up in their current business model and structured organizations that are compartmentalized, departmentalized and driven by MBO (management by objective) goals.

The structure and isolation from the customer will not work in the unprecedented trends in sheer number, speed, and intensity of today’s business transformation activity. The need for business transformation may be caused by external changes in the market such as an organization’s products or services being out of date, changing income streams, new regulations, and/or competition becoming more intense. Organizations need the flexibly and responsiveness required to drive business model transformation which a Lean management system is designed to deliver.

To accomplish this, management must change the focus from optimizing separate technologies, assets, and vertical departments to optimizing the flow of products and services through entire value streams that flow horizontally across technologies, assets, and departments to customers. The Lean management system described in Lean for the Long Term describes that system and gives examples how it applies in every business and every process and the line of sight management process required from the front-line operations to the board of directors. The application of the principles described in our book can make any business more effective and profitable. At the end, this can benefit all of us – owners, managers, employees, and communities. 

So many companies have experienced the Lean initiative "plateau" -- the beginning of the initiative is strong but it soon loses direction and energy. In your experience, what is the cause of this situation? Do you agree with Bill and Ken's perspectives?