Most Lean implementations fail. We can look into this from many points of view, but in general I find the reason to be rather simple. Most companies, and most individuals within them, do not have the drive to strive for perfection.
The fundamental building block of Lean is perfection: perfection of the product, the process, and the individual. If this is not a purpose shared by everyone, or at least most people, then a vital building block of the motivation to be Lean is missing.
Is there something we can do? I think there is. It is often easier to make a leap rather than a step, and that is the key here as well. Let me elaborate.
Lack of motivation to be Lean
According to the self-determination theory, based on research by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan and popularized through the work of Daniel Pink, there are four basic aspects to motivation: autonomy, mastery, purpose, and relatedness.
In the classic Lean implementations in the West, where the tools of Lean are taken into use, often as a part of a Six Sigma initiative, the key difference to the Japanese way is in autonomy. A Lean implementation based on black belts does not foster autonomy. A Japanese-style implementation does.
For a long time, I believed this to be the key to the mystery why Lean fails in the West. However, there is also another aspect, and a much trickier one at that: purpose. Unless people want to strive for perfection, they have no motivation to be Lean. I find that many companies, and many people, in the West lack this desire. Whether it is caused by relativism or something else (because it was not this way in the West during the Enlightenment, for example), the attitude that perfection is not a good thing is becoming more prevalent.
Even if we change the way we implement Lean, it still requires a basic desire for perfection in order to succeed.
Social business to the rescue
There is an alternative path we can take, one that focuses more on relatedness, which is better aligned with the current cultural environment in the West. You can call it social collaboration, Enterprise 2.0, or social business.
This alternative path focuses on radical transparency and serendipitous effects that enable new innovations and radical improvement. It becomes especially powerful when infused with Lean elements – or rather, when used as a part of a Lean program, because I consider Lean to be the paradigm of wider scope. In this synthesis, one that I call Lean social business, radical transparency is used to drive continuous improvement throughout the organization. By making people more related and increasing their feelings of autonomy and opportunities to display mastery, this approach can at least partially overcome the missing alignment on purpose.
Is this a silver bullet, then? No, unfortunately not. One of the very reasons “process” got a bad name in the West was because it was used to exert authority over people even when the people doing the work knew better how things could be improved. There are still huge numbers of Directors, Vice Presidents, and CEOs out there who want to maintain their power and image of authority through secrecy and limiting the flow of information on a need-to-know basis. (I fully understand that there are also many things that need to be kept secret, for legal or contractual reasons, for example.)
Still, I find this challenge to be easier to overcome than the lack of desire for perfection. It is also going to become easier and easier as the millennials, a generation of people used to a greater level of transparency, gain prominence in the workforce.
There is also one more upside. The companies, mostly in Japan, that have been successful in implementing traditional Lean are likely to struggle in implementing this variation of Lean. They are often distrustful of technology, and while they have efficient flows of information, they are not used to complete transparency. Lean social business is the best opportunity I can see for the West to overtake the effective models used in Japan.
Photo: The Temple of Olympian Zeus by Kevin Poh @ Flickr (CC)