Four myths of lean process management, busted!

Craig Sharp

Lean is often considered by outsiders as little more than a cost cutting exercise, a method for reducing waste which doesn’t stop at errors and defects, but cuts a slice out of job satisfaction and job security too.

However champions of this process would argue that lean is, in fact, merely misunderstood. The etymology itself is misleading, as lean isn’t simply an exercise in ‘trimming the fat’, but a comprehensive assessment of current business processes, and resources which might be best put to work elsewhere. Below are five of the common myths associated with the ‘lean principle’, busted:

#1: Lean is for manufacturing processes only

Blowing apart Lean misconceptions

The myth: We’re a service provider not a manufacturer; we don’t have conveyor belts or machine processes to improve.

Busted: The lean philosophy certainly began life in manufacturing, but Toyota’s cherished ethos can be adapted for use in almost any scenario – business or personal.

Offices, dentists, doctors, and families can adopt the lean philosophy. Lean works with any task which involves a process – be it processing customer enquiries, logging patients, or making a cup of tea. If it involves a series of steps in order to achieve the end goal (as most things tend to) then it can be assessed, reviewed and more than likely, improved.

#2: It’s expensive

The myth: Lean process management is often thought of as the reserve of big business. Unless you’ve got an endless budget for consultants, it’s simply out of your reach.

Busted: Do you recycle in your office? If you do let me ask you, where are the paper recycling bins?

I’d hazard a guess that the paper bins are by the printer, and if they’re not, it might be worth putting them there now. Simple adjustments to your working environment can make massive efficiency changes to your company – something as simple as putting a paper recycling bin next to the largest source of paper waste saves staff time and effort wandering backwards and forwards in an effort to save the trees!

#3: Lean is stressful for staff

The myth: Because of the constant focus on improvement and eliminating waste, lean process management creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and pressure for staff. Not only can it impact morale, but it can also affect productivity.

Busted: This one is only true if poorly managed and communicated. Although people tend to have a natural resistance to change (we are creatures of habit after all), they usually respond better to it if they’re included in and not swept away by the change process. Lean requires buy-in from staff of all levels, and real implementation will see change driven not from the top, but from within. Communication is also key here, while on occasion big changes may be required, as we’ve already discussed, sometimes the smaller changes can be the most efficient, cost effective and have the largest impact.

#4: Lean = Job losses

The myth: Our boss is on this ‘eliminating waste’ trip, he’s been asking questions about how we do our jobs and watching us like a hawk – we’re facing the chop to save the company some money.

Busted: I’ll start this one with a caveat, yes it may be that some jobs are no longer required. It may be that some workers are inefficient or just plain lazy, and if they’re eating into the funds and resources of your company, they’re also impacting the security and future of your current employer. However, lean is not a job cutting exercise. The process may highlight the need for some departures, but it could also highlight the need for additional training, or perhaps retraining.

A fundamental pillar of the lean philosophy is that people are the company’s most important resource, and that focusing first on improving your people (training and mentoring) is often the best way to minimize mistakes and defects in the service or product you provide. Done right, lean could help your staff fill the gaps in their own knowledge, thus reducing the stress they feel in their jobs and in turn making them more valued by their employers in the long term.