When I started Improve!, I thought long and hard about whether to promote my experience implementing and using "Lean Practices" rather than "Continuous Improvement".  I had done lean business consulting in the past, but that was at a time when "Lean" was as much as anything an industry  buzzword that naturally garnered attention.  Now, years later, "Lean" has gained a certain negative stigma in some circles.

This is because in our culture there is an expectation for instant gratification. When a new method of improving productivity is introduced, an imaginary clock that starts ticking. If after some period of time (a month, a quarter, perhaps a year) significant gains are not realized, the idea is debunked, diminished, and discarded. The problem is, "Lean" is not some quick fix, productivity jump start program.

Lean is a long term strategy and culture choice, that requires training, discipline, patience and steady leadership. The Toyota Production System (TPS), from which lean arose, did not just happen overnight. The form of the TPS that Jim Womack saw in the late 1980's had been evolving over the previous 20 years. Today TPS continues to evolve as does the entire field of continuous improvement.

From my years of experience working with the tools in the lean tool belt, I knew I could teach some early tactical successes for clients after only a few months of work but long term client success would be fleeting unless the larger systemic issues were addressed related to the executive management and the extent to which they commit ideologically to lean as a business operating strategy.  Jim Womack has published a lament on why so many lean implementations have failed, largely as a result of management reluctance to approach the systems side of Lean.

The real path to full success has always been to get C-Suite executives and key managers to adopt Lean first. The real challenge is many of these folks are unwilling or unable to make the change without a lot of patient coaching.

As a process improvement consultant, most of my first level networking contacts in a company are not usually the C-Suite people. They are instead the middle managers who understand that they need help and think Lean or something like it might be the solution.

Telling these managers they are stuck until they get the CEO to buy in is a sure way of turning them away from me as a potential partner in implementing Lean in their business.

So, instead of focusing on that one thing called "Lean", I have instead chosen to focus on the broader theme of continuous improvement. I want to talk about the basics of what a process is, the Customer-Supplier dynamic, systems thinking  and how all these concepts tie together the key strategies used in solving problems and improving performance of nearly any system known to Man.

Improve! is a challenge to everyone to look at what they do, to see both their strengths and weaknesses, then get down to the business of making those weaknesses better. Step by step, over time, everyone has the opportunity to improve what they do. If some C-Suite folks are willing to join in, the possibilities for success can be boundless.  If I can add value as a catalyst, a mentor, or a facilitator along the way all the better.

Article by Chris Redgrave

Chief Improvement Officer (and owner) of IMPROVE!