The Benefits of a Unified Lean Management Approach

Between a pandemic, heightened competition, total supply chain uncertainty, and states shutting down and opening — customers, suppliers, and employees are all in unchartered territory. Despite the confusion and turmoil, fundamentally, you still must have a focus on how to survive and put your best competitive foot forward to succeed in your business. However, as with most things in life, this is far easier to state than execute.

The Tug-of-War Strategy

To help people understand complex issues, it is sometimes helpful to reduce concepts to simple extremes, providing examples people can relate to. For instance, when teaching strategy concepts, you could use the example of playing tug-of-war. Tug-of-war is very
simple: Get a long rope and have a team on each side try to drag the other across a marker. What does it take to be successful at such a simple game? A typical answer would be to have the strongest people on your side. This certainly helps, but if the teams are large enough, then strength tends to even out (think about splitting your company into two groups with each half on different sides of the rope trying to pull the other side past the winning marker).

The real answer in using tug-of-war as a business success metaphor is to have everyone on your side pulling together in the same direction against the other team. Think about how unsuccessful you would be if some people were pulling against the other team, some pulling off to one side, some pulling toward the other side, some not pulling at all, and maybe some pulling in the direction that helps the other team. Clearly, this would not be a strategy for success.

Now, take the tug-of-war metaphor and think about your organization: Is everyone pulling in the same direction? How many examples can you think of where it seems the organization is getting in its own way, or a part of the organization is inhibiting another from doing what they feel needs to be done. Even between employees and management, are both groups in lockstep pulling in the same direction toward success For most organizations, it is not difficult to think of myriad examples where the organization seems to trip over itself trying to get something done. In many cases, these examples become part of the organizational cultural lore, maybe even eliciting a chuckle or two when stories are shared about this department or that one. If you can relate to this metaphor, do not despair, your company is totally normal and there are solutions to this issue.

The purpose of having a strategy is to achieve success. One benefit of implementing a strategy is it allows you to align the organization around the strategy and get everyone pulling in the same direction with a common purpose. When lacking alignment, you sub-optimize the resources you have available to work with, allow openings for your competition, and diminish your potential for profits.

Vast organizational research has been done on effective versus ineffective businesses. In what are deemed to be effective, profitable, organizations, only around two-thirds of employees surveyed think their company does an effective job executing strategy. Among the ineffective companies, this percentage shrinks to around one-quarter of employees. On top of this, on average, companies estimate they only actually achieve 63% of the value they identified in rolling out the strategy they are enabling. Looking at these results leads easily to the conclusion that companies do not do particularly well at executing the plans they have laid out for success. All of this begs the question: Why does this occur and what do we do about it?

While there are many options for what to focus your strategy on, there is an increasingly popular focus on developing your organization around the principles of lean management. Lean is a term coined by authors who studied the Toyota Motor Company and how it rose to global prominence while starting seriously constrained with resources following World War II. Toyota’s story, and the path it followed, is one that any company can replicate with strength and leadership committed to do so.

Empowering Employees


The core tenants of lean management are simple: Build “respect for people” and “continuous improvement.” While many companies typically put their primary focus on the various tools that comprise the continuous improvement platform (5S, total productive maintenance, setup reduction, kaizen, visual management, value stream mapping, etc.), the importance of actively managing your organization’s culture through respect for its people cannot be understated. It is a fundamental mistake to attempt to integrate lean thinking into your organization and not address changing how you manage your culture at the same time.

The primary reason why there are relatively few successful lean implementations in the printing industry is the simple fact that companies consistently try to integrate lean tools into how they already manage their business. Companies seek the clear benefits of continuous improvement opportunities while continuing to manage the business in some incremental version of how they have always done so. This is not a recipe for successful execution or consistent alignment. It is more likely a recipe for confusion, mixed messaging, and rampant uncertainty among the workforce as to what you are really trying to accomplish.

Respect for people is about empowerment. It is about ensuring that decisions are made by the people in your organization who generate the value in the work process and who will have to live with the choices made by their decisions. Companies need to move away from a paradigm of control, where management tells employees what to do and how to do it, to a culture where management facilitates the education and development of employees who are empowered to make decisions about how they best do their work. People throughout the organization need to understand what decisions they are responsible for while those decisions are pushed as far down into the organization as possible. It is also important for information to flow freely within the company, both up and down the organizational chart, as well as across the organization. Lean organizations facilitate this using cross-functional teams, frequently defined by value stream. Lean printers define value as something your customer will pay for; everything else is identified as waste, even if it is necessary to the existing processes today.

One value of a strategy based on lean management is its business scope is comprehensive and all-inclusive. Lean identifies value and waste clearly within an operation and tasks the organization with doing everything possible to eliminate or minimize the waste. Doing this properly requires you to fully engage the entire workforce. Many people tend to reference lean in a manufacturing-only context. This is a tremendous disservice to the power of lean. Lean principles are just as applicable in an organization’s nonmanufacturing areas as well as those on the factory floor. Arguably, there may be more opportunities to be found in nonmanufacturing processes as these business areas are frequently overlooked with the historical focus on manufacturing improvements. Organizations focused on becoming true lean examples can use the constancy of purpose in creating value for customers and eliminating waste as the alignment lightning rods that give the organization focus to execute their strategy.

Gearing your organization around lean principles helps align both your employees and management, and the structure of the organization itself. Lean creates a common language around value and waste, and it helps to focus organizational components around the common enemy of anything and everything that is not creating value for your customers. As empowerment grows, decision-making quickens, making your company more responsive. Employees nearest to the work can see more quickly what process steps truly add value and which simply generate waste. Value stream mapping is an excellent tool that managers can use to help employees, and themselves, see where value is truly added. As waste is identified, employees can engage in eliminating or reducing it, while management can engage in eliminating barriers that keep employees from making gains.

Establishing kaizen events are another terrific way for management to engage actively in supporting employee initiatives in driving changes. Kaizen events can be short or long in duration but tend to bring together cross-functional groups of employees to tackle specific areas to improve. Management can lead the charge to hold, and support, these initiatives and ensure they are properly resourced for results. Efforts like this tend to snowball in positive directions. Once employees realize they are trusted to make decisions impacting their work, their sense of pride and ownership increases. This leads to greater feelings of job satisfaction and engagement in their workplace. All of this makes for a more effective workforce. Employees will also tend to better optimize their unique talents in the organization as they see where value is added and resources are needed internally. A culture of safe risk-taking tends to emerge as decision-making boundaries expand with growing empowerment and trust.

Empowering the workforce also leads to less waste in human resources. Again, think of our tug-of-war metaphor. As you empower employees, and management finds ways to support their development, you consistently get more and more people pulling the rope in the same direction. Lean becomes the guiding principle that keeps focus on moving the organization forward. With employees finding greater personal rewards working for the organization, turnover, and its related costs, also decrease.

With a common focus driving the company forward, your customers will notice your efforts as well. What better conversation to have with a customer than to explain that your business focus has been defined as delivering value, only as the customer defines value, and driving everything else out of your business model. Think of who you would like to do business with: A company focused internally on themselves, or a company focused externally on creating value for your business?

A Leap of Faith in Challenging Times


Embracing a lean transformation requires some leaps of faith and a willingness to move beyond traditional measures. Common rallying points of the past, such as cost containment or profits, have too many inherent conflicts that sub-optimize the organization. Want to contain costs as a means of driving profit up? View your employees as a cost to manage rather than a resource to optimize. Defer maintenance and hope machinery does not break down. Hold back on hiring or spending on employee development and training. All these things can contain cost, but they also tend to handicap the business and they send a clear message to your employees of where your focus is, and that it is not on them and their wellbeing.

Does becoming lean sound like too big of a leap for your firm? Think of your competitive landscape and what is going to happen if your competition embraces lean thinking and finds success. Will that make you competitive in the future?

The start of this article mentioned several business complexities, and there are certainly more: As supply chains are disrupted, technology is accelerating and shifting customer preferences, and employees are becoming scarcer, leaving suppliers unable to fulfill existing demand. There is no doubt doing business today is more difficult than in the past, and is only going to increase in difficulty and complexity. To survive, and to thrive, your business must have clear and constant focus to navigate the long, strange road ahead. There is never one single answer for what to do. But whatever you choose to do, make sure it is something that achieves organizational alignment — you cannot afford to have your resources pulling in anything other than one direction. Hopefully, it is down the road to success. 

kevin-cooper-01Kevin Cooper is a former executive at R.R. Donnelley and Sons and Microsoft. He also spent 19 years teaching at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in business and graphic communication. He has written numerous articles and three books on lean management: “Setup Reduction for Printers,” “Lean Printing Pathway to Success,” and “Lean Printing Cultural Imperatives for Success.” He is happily retired.