Succeeding With Lean When You Don’t Know Nuffin’

Keep Calm PDCA (1)It is vitally important for lean people to know nothing when working on improvement. This sounds like a crazy idea!! But it is another 100% turnaround from traditional management thinking.

This is the third article of a series that shows how to develop a truly Lean Management System. We are still on the fundamentals of Lean Thinking.

This time we will look at:

  • how lean thinkers go about radically improving their business
  • engaging everybody to make improvement
  • increase and capture knowledge

Here’s the big-picture diagram:

Lean Mgmt System Diagram-2 Click here for Lean Management System information

If a traditional company has a significant business problem they call in the experts. The experts study the problem and work out how to solve it. They then develop a project plan with a Gantt chart to show how they will implement all the changes needed to get to their solution†. This same team will parachute into various parts of the company and implement the changes required to solve the problem. Sometimes  these projects are very successful, but often they fail or they fail to sustain over time. These projects usually do not get finished on time.

There are two fundamental assumptions at work here. The first is that the experts know what must be done. The second is that the solution can be implemented successfully. Lean thinking rejects these assumptions and the problem-solving approach starts from a position of knowing nothing. There are a variety of lean-style problem-solving methods, and the most common is called PLAN-DO-CHECK-ACT (PDCA).

All lean thinking and change is based on data, rather than expertise. We never go into an improvement event with a plan of how to achieve the improvement. We know what problem must be solved, and we know how much improvement we want to achieve. We then step through the PDCA process and make the changes that the team has proven to be the most beneficial.


  •  Click diagram for PDCA video
  • The PLAN step identifies the problem, specifies the level of required improvement, and gathers data related to the problem.
  • The DO step is where the team analyses the data, identifies root causes, and develops multiple solutions.
  • During the CHECK step the team experiments with the most promising solutions, measures the results, more deeply understands the process, and decides which changes will be implemented.
  • The ACT step formalizes the changes through standardization, ensures sustainment, and identifies the next needed improvement. There is also a reflection time where the team reviews their work and identifies what new knowledge has been created during the improvement.j
  • The process is then repeated to build on the knowledge. People learn through repeat practice. Many small projects built around data, analysis, and experimentation.

Companies using PDCA make faster and better improvement progress and they formally capture learning/knowledge that can be applied throughout the business. Companies that do NOT rigorously use PDCA (or similar methods) soon revert to the traditional “expert driven” method of improvement††.  This results in slower improvement, fewer successful projects, lack of formal knowledge capture, and the same old top-down projects that do not empower the people in the company†††.

While PDCA is a superior method of problem solving, the more important issue is that lean companies do not start off with a plan of what changes to make. They know clearly what they need to achieve as a business but they do not prescribe solutions. The important changes develop through the PDCA approach based on data, experiment, and standardization. The work is NOT done by distant “experts” but by the people working day-to-day in the processes. These may be sales processes, production processes, child care, patient treatment, accounting, administrative, and all other processes within lean organizations.


The methods of lean and the PDCA process must be used throughout the organization. Many companies  approach lean half-heartedly and only use lean methods in the operational processes; the factory, the clinic, the construction site, the software developments, etc.. True lean includes the use of lean thinking and methods in every process and every location throughout the company.

Lean Everywhere

I sometimes work with companies where only some of their locations are “going lean”. Equally common is for the lean work to be happening in the factory but sales (for example) are not involved. This leads to dysfunctional flows and a focus on cost-cutting instead of growth. Similarly, if the factory people are working with lean thinking but the accounting and measurements are traditional, the performance reports will push back against lean improvement because the measurements will drive anti-lean behaviors††††.

Lean thinking requires a broad application of lean across the entire organization using a formal PDCA for problem solving and improvement.


All important things take leadership, and lean is no exception.  Lean thinking is entirely the opposite of traditional management. It takes leadership to change the deeply engrained paradigms.

Lean Manager (3)

When lean first came to the West in the 1980’s it was largely run by leaders in the factory. As time went by and people recognized that there was something far deeper going on than just different manufacturing practice, the pressure came to make lean a process that is led and managed by the company’s most senior leaders. There are many lean failures when the people “in the trenches” pursue lean without the understanding or support from their senior leaders.

Recently it has been seen that for lean to prosper ALL company leaders need to be actively leading lean. Everybody from the executive team, the front line workers, and the middle managers at every level must be fully aligned. Alignment with lean means consistent understanding and lean thinking across the entire organization.

Now, life is not as clear cut and simple as this suggests. But the companies that become lean powerhouses are the ones with full focus and alignment on lean thinking and methods.


This article and the previous one set the scene for the lean thinking needed for our Lean Management System.

  • True lean starts with the Five Principles of Lean
    • Focus on Customer Value.
    • Work by Value Streams, not Vertical Departments.
    • Make Everything Flow without Stopping, at the Pull of the Customer.
    • Everybody Works On Lean Improvement.
    •  Pursue Perfection. Lean is a Long Term Strategy.
  • All lean improvement succeeds from data, analysis, experimentation, and control. No one knows in advance what to do; the PDCA process takes us there.
  • All our leaders must be trained, aligned, and focused on lean thinking at every level and position.
  • Lean must be on-the-go at every part of the company, all the time.

Now that we have address the fundamental Lean Thinking, we can move on to the Lean Management System.  In the next article we will go deeper into how lean organizations set up value streams and prosper their companies and their customers.

Coming Soon !!

HELPFUL CHECKLIST: Does your company approach lean by leadership, lean everywhere, and PDCA continuous improvement.


†  Project management Gantt charts usually can not be read by people over 40 years of age. Is this a conspiracy against us?? Is it “ageism”?

†† This “expert-lead improvement” goes back to Frederick Taylor and the Scientific Management movement of the 1920’s.

††† Dan Jones focused on two primary issues at his keynote for the Instituit Lean Paris Conference 2014. “Engage everyone to do things they could not previously do” and “Learning through problem solving and repeated practice.”

††††  These traditional measurements and accounting methods were designed for 1950’s mass production-style management that, in turn, was developed from Taylorism. They are NOT bad or wrong. They are just designed for a management system that is the opposite of lean.

Keep Calm PDCA (1)

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4 Responses to Succeeding With Lean When You Don’t Know Nuffin’

  1. Max Blake says:

    Brian – great article, in my opinion. I first read this in the Quality Digest Daily of June 3. Your emphasis on implementing fundamental principles of management and improvement are a breath of fresh air in a world of emphasis on implementing tools.
    We continue to be subjected to the “expert driven” process you describe, whether it’s outside or inside consultants. However, at our site we are striving to implement a site-wide Management System that focuses on leadership (set the direction, communicate with all, model the desired behaviors), problem solving (PDSA based process), organization (everyone knows their position and roles & responsibilities), involvement (everyone is a problem solver for the work they do), and capability building (train people to do their jobs, educate people to grow their capabilities). We do not call this “Lean” because it has nothing to do with the current, popularized, shallow representation of the Toyota Way. It does have everything to do with deeply implementing a management system that is suitable to our business and processes. Our management system relies on the very same fundamentals that you describe in this article, except you call it a Lean Management System. My question is, when will the use of the term “Lean” cease to be used to promote the management method that is fundamental and timeless?

  2. Mike Davis says:

    Excellent review of PDCA just like it was taught to us by Toyoda-Gosei mother company in the late 80s and 90s. Congrats AND thanks from a retired guy who still helps a few people now and then.

  3. BMaskell says:

    Thanks for the question. I have set up the beginnings of an index for these up-coming posts related to Lean Management Systems. So far there are only 3 publish posts. Two more ready to go and about 25 more to write !!

    All the best, Brian

  4. Bill Kluck says:

    Great article, Brian. But I could only find the previous one, not all (3) articles you mentioned. Is this number 2?

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