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Are Your Lean Efforts Generating Any Real Benefit?


At the risk of touching a nerve, asking if your ‘Lean’ (or continuous improvement) efforts are actually generating any real benefit is a critical issue to consider. After all, we’re seeing more and more effort—both resource hours and money—being poured into a variety of improvement activities across both the private and increasingly, the public, sectors. It’s time for someone to ask, “Is it actually making us better?”

The sad reality is that there are a number of ways in which well-intended improvement efforts can go sideways, making real benefits that much harder to capture than first imagined.

Traps to Avoid in the Pursuit of a Positive Return on Your Improvement Investment

Focus on the wrong problem. Spending time and money on problems and business issues that, from a total business perspective, are relatively unimportant is a waste of precious resources that could have been focused on things that truly matter. For example, reducing the time it takes to process customer orders sounds like a great thing to do, but if the real issue impacting growth and profitability is product quality or after-sales service, then spending time anywhere else is not going to generate the desired degree of benefit. Improvement programs need to start with an end-to-end assessment of the business to identify where best to focus improvement efforts to yield actual results.

Lack of leadership and staff involvement. For improvement efforts to be successful, leaders, managers and staff must be invested in the process. Without hands-on involvement and ownership of tasks and goals, even the best ideas will remain hidden in reports and PowerPoint presentations. Too often, it is an external consultant that is left to drive the program; equally problematic is when ownership of the improvement process is passed on to an internal business improvement team. While building an internal team can be a great idea, there is a risk the organization will defer accountability for improving the business to this team of specialists, which is the opposite of what needs to happen. Consultants and internal improvement resources are there to facilitate, guide, educate and motivate; it’s up to everyone else to make it happen and to gain real benefit from doing so.

Over thinking the problem and over intellectualizing the solution. Business is complicated enough, so let’s not make it more complex by over-thinking problems and creating overly complicated solutions. There is a tendency to believe that a complex solution must be better and that a simple solution is somehow inadequate. The problem with complex solutions is that, well, they’re complex, and often hard to implement and sustain. This doesn’t help the cause of generating real benefit. Simple solutions are often faster to implement, faster to create benefit and much more likely to stick.

Case in point: one organization we recently worked with tried to reduce the time required to complete a core customer-facing process. The challenge was managing the many variations in the type of work that flowed through this process on a daily basis, as some types of work were fast to complete while others took much longer. This caused backlogs and delays at varying points along the process, depending on the sequence of work on that particular day. Several attempts at scheduling the work based on type and expected duration at various steps generated some improvement, but proved to be complex and labour-intensive to re-calculate on a daily basis. The idea was soon abandoned.

Based on our experience in seeing similar process backlog issues in other organizations, we suggested they try the ‘supermarket express lane’ solution. The idea was to strip away the two main types of work that were causing the bulk of the delay and bottleneck issues, and set up separate process flows for each one. With dedicated resources looking after the problematic work types, the remaining work (about 80% of the total) flowed quickly through the regular process. Process completion time was reduced by over 50%, capacity increased by 20% and no additional resources were required. A simple solution and it worked.

Not focusing on benefits. As strange as it seems, many improvement efforts go off the rails because the spotlight shines brightest on the tools and methodology instead of on the achievement of benefits. Too often, improvement program progress is measured in terms of number of employees trained, number of kaizen events held and other metrics that speak more to how busy the consultants are instead of the measurable benefits achieved. While the tools and methods are important, they are mainly a means to an end—achieving real and sustainable benefit for your business.

Avoiding these traps will go a long way towards achieving real benefit and getting full value from your investment in business improvement.