How to Sustain Lean Results

Mike O'Donnell

Sustaining “Lean” results is a critical challenge for many organizations.  Although Lean knowledge and tools are important to implementation and results, they are not sufficient to ensure sustainability. Many organizations, hungry for quick fixes, focus heavily on tools and achieve short term results, but no long term impact.

Tools and Methods do not sustain results

“The attraction of tools is that they can be employed at many points within an organization, often by staff improvement teams … it’s understandable that lean tools came to the foreground – 5S, setup reduction, the five whys … value-stream maps, kanban, and kaizen … But just as a carpenter needs a vision of what to build in order to get the full benefit of a hammer, we need a clear vision of our organizational objectives and better management methods before we pick up our lean tools.”
—Jim Womack, “The Challenge of Lean Transformation“, BPTrends, January 2007

Lean is a way of thinking.

It is about each person in the organization developing a group of thinking patterns to strive to make scientific working a daily habit. It is about every person using the scientific method in their daily work to develop solutions to improve their process, from the shop floor worker to the top managers. Lean thinking focused on the process of how solutions are developed which results in sustainability.

Remember the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.

Traditional Thinking: Focus On Solutions Lean Thinking: Focus on How Solutions are Developed
Establish Targets Establish Targets
Identify Solutions, Assign Actions Develop Capacity in People to to Develop Solutions
Establish Incentives Coach and practice a common way of developing solutions (Lean tools and methods)
Manage Implementation of Solutions Establish a teachable pattern of thinking and developing solutions
Periodically Check Results Evaluate and update coaching and methods – Plan, do, check, act
Rother, Mike (February 2010). Toyota Kata. Mobilizing our ingenuity through good management, 20.  Adapted from


Lean thinking is a habit.

Teachers say a student must practice something at least 17 times to learn and become a habit. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to practice?

Although habits can be hard to change, humans have the ability to change habits, through deliberate practice. At first the practice uses our conscious mind and is slow and difficult. But, after many repetitions, the habits becomes part of our subconscious mind and becomes fast and easy. Think about the following habits, and when you first learned them, from a teacher or coach, through hours and hours of deliberate practice.

  • Addition and subtraction, Multiplication tables, spelling, touch      typing
  • Riding a bike, driving a car, flying a plane
  • Martial arts, golfing, tennis, sports
  • Playing video games – Halo, Call of Duty, Wii, Kinect
  • Cooking

Current research supports the importance of deliberate practice to learn new thinking habits.

For Continuous Improvement to be effective and sustainable, it requires a systems approach involving the entire organization. Management should guide the organization in four fundamental areas to ensure success:

  1. Purpose – maximizing customer value
  2. Process – continually improving speed and defects      for factory and office
  3. People – involving people in improving the      process, providing knowledge, and tools
  4. Sustainable culture – encouraging change, communicating success, and results

We’re interested in hearing about you and your organization’s Continuous Improvement results, and the effectiveness of the Methods and Tools you use. Comment below or email me at

Let us know what is working and what is not.

Learn more about MAGNET’s Lean Strategy & Implementation at:


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