Sustaining Your Lean Enterprise—Making it Stick

Doing the Right Things
May 9, 2018
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June 10, 2018

Sustaining Your Lean Enterprise—Making it Stick

The companies that over a period of years that successfully implement lean start by overcoming resistance: They set

Client team

Process Improvement team

new goals, discard old routines, and celebrate new ways of getting work done. Leaders get this done by mobilizing the best people in the organization. This is the jump-start, and it is always a radical, stressful period. It is also highly satisfying.

This high energy start-up does change measurable performance in the short-term, but its main function is to overcome inertia by establishing lean as a way of life for the organization and building momentum in new directions. It puts more energy into the organization than will show up early in improved numbers. But the short-term improvement can still be significant. The early momentum is by no means self-sustaining, however. Early successes are often achieved in those parts of the company where thoughtful people knew big improvements could be made, and they are the work of the company’s more able, motivated employees. But momentum can be dampened if tough problems go unsolved or if hastily assembled teams compromise their solutions for easy, incremental gains that leave the company basically unchanged. If key managers stop driving the process, if the old metrics are still the ones that really matter, and if roadblocks aren’t taken off the critical path, progress will grind to a halt. The same thing may happen if lean efforts grow mainly out of an earnings shortfall. Once the market rebounds, the effort will probably die. To sustain the gains the organization must (a) institutionalize the basics of the process, (b) empower its employees and (c) keep moving forward.


Sustaining the effort requires institutionalizing the basics of the process;

  • Monitoring progress against the lean vision, and emphasizing the gap that still exists
  • Continuing to benchmark, the best lean performers
  • Involving key managers in driving the next set of kaizen and breakthrough teams and making sure that goals are not compromised
  • Building on early successes and taking people from early teams that completed their projects and placing them on new teams that are attacking difficult problems, demonstrating that the company values the process, not just the first results
  • Following up by formally instituting a new set of metrics and rewards, and phasing out old ones
  • Granting capital spending authorization for proposals that promote lean improvements and denying proposals for new plant and equipment that won’t be necessary if cycle times are reduced
  • Communicating-communicating-communicating the principles and objectives to all stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, customers, union leaders, and others

The real benefits come from sustained efforts over years not months. This applies not to just the numbers, but to the learning as well. Companies become a learning organization by having a team make a difficult change, by thinking and talking about what the team did that made the difference, then by continuing to use the lessons learned elsewhere in the organization.


Empowered employees are crucial to sustaining the lean enterprise. This means empowering employees to focus on lean process improvement every day as a way of life, not just during the initial stages of implementation. It requires management behavior to shift from directing employee activities to finding ways to encourage employee behavior that helps to achieve the organization’s vision. This requires managers to hone their coaching skills and employees to adapt to their new roles and acquire and/or improve their problem solving and decision-making skills.

There are two major types of empowerment. Both are required if an organization is to share responsibility and authority at all levels. The first is self-empowerment, by which employees, believing in their own abilities and wanting to grow, accept increased responsibility for their actions. The second is a management philosophy and strategy that actively works to improve performance by empowering all employees to improve. The first, self-empowerment, isn’t something management can impact directly. However, there are many personal development seminars available that management can offer to employees who want to enable themselves to do more. Creating an empowered workplace enables all employees to work together to sustain lean as the organization’s approach to day-to-day business.

Keep Moving Forward

Although each success is a cause to celebrate, you must never lose sight of the future. Keeping the future in view means emphasizing the need to keep moving toward perfection. Make sure your employees understand that survival and growth means extending the organization’s market share while continuously striving to reduce waste. Without this reinforcement employees may become complacent or even forget the reason for change. This erodes the culture of change, and once this happens, processes may revert to “old ways” of doing things.

To complete the cultural change that enable an environment in which lean process improvement can truly exist as a way of life, an organization must focus on the future and keep all improvement efforts aligned with the strategic goals of the company.

Willie L. Carter is the president of Quantum Associates, Inc., a process improvement consultancy. He helps managers unlock the full promise, speed, and energy of their processes. Carter’s certifications include, Lean Sensei, ISO 9000 Lead Assessor, Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence. He is an experienced facilitator, coach, and author of the book “Process Improvement for Administrative Departments, The Key to Achieving Internal Customer Satisfaction.” His company helps executives optimize their business processes to minimize their costs, accelerate their cycle time while simultaneously enabling them to do more with less. He can be reached at

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