So here we are, 30 years into the Lean movement. That means a new generation of executives, ages 40 to 50 or so, are now beginning to lead corporations. To their predecessors, Lean “production” (as it was then known) was new and exploding with potential. Today’s leaders experienced those Lean efforts when they were in their 20s and 30s. They followed their leaders’ direction and made good efforts to learn and apply Lean principles and practices.
Now that they are in charge, they have their own unique view of Lean borne of two decades or more of personal experience. Their memory of those experience is a mixed, tilting towards the unfavorable. In simple terms, they had more bad experiences with Lean than good experiences — in some cases by a wide margin.
They witnessed the practice of Lean in the companies they worked, starting as something new and exciting but soon deteriorating into a perfunctory, check-the-box activity that became bureaucratized and politicized. They participated in kaizen and other improvement activities such as value stream mapping. Good outcomes were the exception, not the rule. They remember those improvement efforts as ineffective or having only limited effectiveness. They saw things backslide to the way they were before kaizen.
To a degree, they understand why the Lean efforts they participated in did not produce the expected results. Yet, given those experiences, the executives in charge today do not think it is practical to make the corrections that might yield better business results. They are not interested in the type of major changes associated with Lean, as characterized by the word “transformation” – whether it is business or personal transformation.
The good news is that they still believe in continuous improvement. They see it as a necessity in a competitive business environment and to better serve customers and grow. But they want focus, commitment, and, of course, results. They want the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that come with the practice of Lean and kaizen, but without the infrastructure, bureaucracy, frills, or need for major organizational transformation.
It appears that the demand for improvement is shifting towards simplification — simpler constructs for continuous improvement that can be introduced with less fanfare, at lower cost, in less time, and which they can manage and support more easily.
This is what I’m hearing from the next generation of executives. What about you?