Does 'Lean' Become Self Perpetuating?

From our own experiences over the years in leading, facilitating, educating and changing incrementally toward a 'Lean' culture of work and continual improvement in these laboratories of the Henry Ford Health System, Im sure most of you have come to your own conclusion. This is hard work-- to focus continually on improving the system of work, employing a scientific discipline to making change and investing in the knowledge and creativity of our workforce to discover the right way for themselves.

Recently I came across the thoughts on this topic of Steven Spear, who described the effective 'Lean' rules of work in Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System back in 1999. His insights have many lessons for all of us who strive for excellent performance and outcomes in all that we do here at Henry Ford. Here's what Steven Spears says-

"Many organizations have looked to Toyota for a model to emulate, in pursuit of excellence. Why? Toyota went from being an uncompetitive auto maker in the 1950s, to world class in quality and efficiency by the 1980s, to the world standard in model diversity, new brand introduction, regional expansion, and technological leadership by 2000.

Credit for Toyota's success was given to its management system-the Toyota Production System-more generally known as 'lean manufacturing.'

Recently, a CEO trying to drive his own organization to exceptional levels of performance suggested that at some point, 'lean' becomes self perpetuating, largely because employees-accustomed to problem solving, kaizen, and the like, would insist on continued improvement it even in the absence of strong leadership.

Does that happen?

Before reading my take, what would your answer be? Does this become 'habitual?' Underpinning your answer, how are you defining:

  • Lean
  • Lean implementation
  • Leadership roles

Here is my response.

'Lean' never becomes self sustaining. Never ever ever. No way, no how. It simply cannot.


There are infinite sources of friction and viscosity in an organization to suppress the core behaviors critical to achieving exceptional performance. (Before you read further, what did you define as 'core behaviors'?)

The friction and viscosity can only be overcome by the motive force of constant, vigilant engaged leadership.

Let me expand on this.

Exceptional performance is possible. That is not a hypothetical. There is obvious evidence that some accomplish it though most do not.

Achieving exceptional performance requires generating and sustaining high velocity, non-stop, broad based, improvement and innovation. In short, you can only outperform the field if you can consistently outlearn the field.


Because EVERYTHING we design- product, process-any complex system-will be grossly flawed on the first version. They HAVE to be. Our brains are insufficient to anticipate all the structural needs and all the dynamics behaviors without practical tests.

Therefore, we must have the skills to convert the ignorance that we incorporated originally into our designs into useful knowledge about how to design and operate the exceptionally complex products, services, and systems on which we depend and for which we are responsible.

Generating and sustaining high-velocity, non-stop, broad based improvement and innovation is skill based-not inspired genius, 'culture,' 'spirit,' 'servant leadership,' or any of that other fluffy kumbaya stuff which sounds good but which has no actionability.

Some examples from The High Velocity Edge.

The Navy's Hyman Rickover (Chapter 5), servant leader? Please. He was an insistent teacher of engineering discipline.

Alcoa's Paul O'Neill (Chapter 4)? Again, an incredibly insistent modeler and reinforcer of the disciplines necessary for excellence.

At Toyota (Chapter 9), the leaders there come across as challenging bosses, not mean or destructive, but tough in the same way your best coach or teacher was tough. Demanding, with high expectations. And constant feedback, encouragement, direction, and education. The type of person you never wanted to disappoint so you dug down deeper than you ever thought possible.

In short, achieving exceptional performance depends on skills, just like civil engineering, cooking, quality writing, or anything meritorious. There are deep skills required and the time and discipline that goes into developing, nourishing, and applying them relentlessly.

What are those skills?

The skills necessary for an organization to outlearn its peers include those for: Seeing problems-seeing ignorance:

  • Designing systems so they incorporate our current best known approach AND identify problems immediately when and where they occur. Those problems are a signal that we don't understand.

Solving problems:

  • Containing problems as soon as they are seen so they don't propagate AND solving them rigorously (scientific method, A3, PDCA, Shewhart-all essentially the same point about rigorous diagnosis, treatment, and follow up) so that the ignorance that caused problem is converted into useful knowledge.

Sharing learnings:

  • Incorporating new knowledge both locally and sharing it (and the discovery process behind it) systemically for broad effect. 1, 2, and 3 are precisely what high performing technical communities do well. This is the same skills applied to work systems rather than mechanical, electrical, or biological ones.

Engaging leadership:

  • Leading by (a) being responsible for incorporating component pieces of work into sub systems and systems and (b) relentlessly developing skills 1-4 in others.

As far as friction and viscosity that corrode and impede these skills, adults in general and leaders in particular are incredibly crappy at the skills above.

  • Calling at problems shows they are ignorant.
  • Solving problems rigorously takes A LOT of discipline and doesn't provide immediate gratification of a 'solution.'
  • Sharing learning requires they expose their own work to relentless critique.

As for leadership, too much leadership education is about 'decision making'-implying that the key is having the right information and the right models to interpret it rather than about discovery and development-finding new information and new ways to interpret it and teaching others to do the same.

In response to the question: Does 'lean' (or any other approach for achieving excellence) ever become self perpetuating, did we come to similar or different conclusions?

If we have come to different conclusions,

What do you mean by 'lean' and 'lean implementation?'

What skills do leaders have to have, by your accounting, for lean to succeed-actual behaviors?

How are those behaviors and skills taught to leaders?"

In conclusion then, the success of 'Lean' or a quality initiative by any name, is highly dependent on you, the leader - your skills, your approach to problem solving, and the structure and incentives you have created for employee engagement in that process.

Food for thought. Have a great week.

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