Sustaining Lean Initiatives: Lessons Learned
- Raphael L. Vitalo and Joseph P. Vitalo
The improvements you develop through daily or special lean events must sustain
if you are to make real progress in your striving for perfection. Without sustainment,
you simply run in place. You also surrender the lion's share of value an improvement
generates through its continued use over time. Yet, despite the importance of
sustainment, most improvements wane in their application. How do you turn that
Do Most Improvements Wane?
||While we have not uncovered
direct research on the overall frequency that Lean-driven business improvements
sustain, we do have indirect research from other related improvement efforts
that suggest the failure rate for sustaining an improvement might be as
high 70%. These include the results from business process redesign (70%
failure rate reported by Malhorta, 1998) and the sustained use of new proficiencies
in the workplace one year after training (estimated at only 30%; Saks, 2004).
As imperfect as this information is, it is consistent with our observations
of various improvement initiatives across a variety of companies over several
decades of consulting.
Making Sure the Next Time Is Better...
Recently, a company we encountered began a major Lean initiative in its Manufacturing
area. We were visiting the company on a related issue during which we uncovered
that the company had undertaken a Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) initiative
some years prior as well as a broadly implemented 6S initiative. Curious, we
asked how they were received. They had been received well by employees, we were
told, and they produced important benefits at the time. We asked what was happening
with them today. We learned that the follow through on preventive maintenance
regimens and 6S was poor. The two obvious questions we raised were "why"
and "how are you ensuring that your new initiative does not end up the
same way?" These questions raised a concern. "If we were not able
to sustain our last effort to continuously improve, why should we believe that
this new effort will sustain?" This is a question every company can and
should raise for itself, as decade after decade we seem to re-discover and re-apply
a newly branded version of problem solving methods to get better at what we
do. We have many tools and lots of energy for uncovering opportunities and making
improvements (Quality Planning, Process Charting, Value Stream Analysis, Gemba
Kaizen events, Quick Change, Quality Circles, team problem solving, suggestion
systems, etc.), but we seem to have few if any tools and little excitement for
ensuring that the improvements we develop sustain.
The company asked our help and we suggested a simple solution—"Let's
conduct a Mining Learning From Performance session with the people knowledgeable
of what happened with TPM and 6S and use what we learn to ensure that the improvements
you develop in this new initiative sustain." The company agreed. We share
the results of this effort with you because, in retrospect, the findings seem
to fit many companies we have encountered.
Mining Learning From Performance
Mining Learning From Performance is a simple four step process that develops
ideas from the last time you performed a task and uses them to produce a better
next effort. The four steps are—(1) Judge status, (2) Uncover reasons,
(3) Extract learning, and (4) Set direction for improved performance (Exhibit
1). Our acronym for our process is SRLDsm.
You can apply SRLDsm at the individual or
team level to recycle experience into a better next performance. It is an engine
of continuous personal development when applied at the individual level. It
works as an engine of renewal for initiatives performed by teams and organizations.
to Improve Sustaining
We gathered together a team of knowledgeable people to complete the SRLDsm
session. Each team member was trained in using the method. We established our
focus and set some ground rules for extracting and applying what we would learn.
SRLDsm begins with identifying the task for
which improved performance is desired. Here, the task was to sustain the application
of 6S and preventive maintenance (PM). As to ground rules, the team adopted
some commonly used rules (e.g., one speaker at a time, leave nothing unsaid,
use your Working With Others skills1
and added a few specifics to this assignment. First, we would each assume responsibility
for checking the facts with others not in the room. This meant that we would
split the session so that team members could have time to speak with employees
in different work areas and at different job levels (managers, supervisors,
and nonsupervisors). We all agreed that the problem was broadly based and needed
all the perspectives we could gather to ensure that we understood the facts
correctly. Second, we would push for quantitative information, not just opinion.
This too was important as it ensures some level of validity to the information
with which you work. It also allows you to decide among conflicting perspectives
2. Status of the Sustaining Task
Sustain the application of 6S and preventive maintenance (PM)
- 100% of scheduled PMs completed as scheduled
- 100% of designated work areas have 6S implemented
- 30% of scheduled PMs completed
- 30% of designated areas have 6S implemented
- Performance of task is below expectations
Once you define the task, you document the target for results you had and what
results you produced relative to realizing those targets. No one actually recorded
a target for sustaining 6S and the performance of PMs, but everyone agreed that
the implicit expectation was 100% compliance—meaning, 100% of the scheduled
PMs performed as scheduled and 100% of the designated work areas maintained
to 6S standards. Next, we recorded the results achieved. Compliance with 6S
can be measured using simple observations, but we also wanted to know whether
everyone saw the same thing. For example, if there was a real division among
perceptions as to whether 6S was being done and, in fact, it was not being done—that
would tell us that one reason it was not being sustained was that people did
not understand 6S. As it turned out, perceptions about 6S were consistent. It
was estimated that not more than 30% of the of the designated work areas were
maintained to 6S standards. Direct observations supported this estimate.
As to PMs, we encountered an unusual situation. The department had an accounting
system that tracked and reported the completion of PMs. It consistently reported
that PMs were completed 100% of the time. In contrast, the estimates of completion
people on the floor reported averaged around 30%. In this instance, the formal
accounting system turned out to be wrong. Our first-hand observations on the
floor confirmed the 30% estimate. A closer look at the accounting system revealed
that the system simply counted the number of PM authorization sheets returned
with "Done" checked off. It did not audit the performance of PMs.
Once you have the task, target, and results, you judge how well the task was
accomplished. A task may be judged as performed to expectation, above expectation,
or below expectation. Clearly, success in sustaining the application of 6S and
the performance of PMs was below expectations (Exhibit 2).
With the status of the task clarified, each team member contacted various other
employees to share the perceived status and solicited their thinking about two
questions. The first question was. "What are the reasons we did as well
as we have done is sustaining improvements?" The second question was, "What
kept us from doing even better?" We always pursue both tracks no matter
what judgment we conclude as to status. The reason is simple. It is just as
important to continue to do what worked as it is to replace what did not work.
Do one without the other and you compromise your learning and your chances to
improve your next performance.
When the team members reassembled, they shared what they learned from others
as well as what they understood based on their own experiences. We use a set
of causal factors to prompt thinking and organize the reasons we uncover (Exhibit
3). These factors account for most of why any human activity results in success
or failure. We developed them based on our own experience as well as the prior
work of Gilbert (1978) and Carkhuff (1983). People are the most critical factor
determining success—specifically, their capacity, desire, and readiness
to perform what is required and their alignment across groups (performers, supervisors,
managers, and executives). Next, the method used to implement whatever the action
is, especially whether it is well designed, documented, and incorporates coordination,
measurement of results, and feedback to all performers. The setting within which
the method is performed is the third factor that contributes to or retards success.
The key features of support are the adequacy of resources provided, the clarity
and timeliness of expectations and feedback, the incentives established within
the setting, and the performance by other organizations that must support doing
3. Factors That Enable and Hinder Success
supervisors, managers, executives)
- Strength and energy (relative to task requirements)
- Desire or motivation
- Knowledge, skills, and proficiency levels (relative to task requirements)
- Alignment with respect to purpose and approach across groups
- Status as documented
- Status as completely explained
- Effectiveness as a method
- Inclusion of coordination, measurement of results, and feedback to
- Ease of execution
- Other characteristic of method
- Resources (information, space, equipment, tools, materials, funds)
- Assignment (Do what?)
- Method (How?)
- Results Expected (Achieve what?)
- Results Achieved
- Recognition/Rewards for correct performance
- Consequences for nonperformance
- Support from other interfacing organizations
What We Found
The team uncovered 24 reasons why sustaining 6S and performing PMs did as
well as it did and why it ultimately failed. Here are the highlights.
What Enabled Sustaining
Initial success was driven by the energy and desire of performers to improve
their work setting. Employees were enthusiastic about having an opportunity
to influence their work and the initial commitment of employees was reinforced
by experiencing a direct and immediate benefit from sustaining the improvements—specifically,
they worked in a clean and organized area and experienced less frustration
in doing their jobs. Employees were skilled in doing the processes they needed
to sustain. They were trained in 6S and in implementing their preventive maintenance
Initially, there was good alignment among all levels of employees. Upper
management was involved and concerned. Supervisors worked alongside line personnel
and helped solve problems and obtain resources. They also scheduled time for
the improvement tasks to be performed.
Two features about the methods used to implement 6S and preventive maintenance
also were credited with helping early success. One was incorporating keeping
notes about problems discovered and the fixes put into place for future reference
and the other was providing ways to communicate across shifts so that problems
uncovered and corrections made were passed along.
With regard to setting support, the evidence suggested that the key enablers
were the delegation of authority to the workers to fix problems when they
were uncovered and to have a say in the way their work areas were organized.
What Hindered Sustaining
The key factor that unraveled sustaining was the breakdown in alignment among
people. Management priorities, as expressed in their feedback to supervisors,
appear to change. They did not address sustaining 6S and preventive maintenance—rather,
they narrowed to getting product produced. With this shift, supervisor support
for workers doing the sustaining tasks evaporated. Time was no longer allocated
to the tasks, resources were not provided, and the opportunities for cross-shift
communication fell away. This shift in emphasis by management, in effect,
revised the incentive system operating in the workplace. The new incentives
reinforced a return to the way things operated before the improvements
were introduced. Also, the information system reporting the status of
preventive maintenance became a "check-off the box" exercise and
no longer a valid reflector of actual work. Hence, the feedback loop on performance
was eroded. Both factors undermined the motivation of performers, as they
read that sustaining was no longer a priority concern and as they encountered
frustration with regard to getting the time and resources needed to continue
A more subtle factor was the failure of managers to detect and address what
was happening. Management continued to want the 6S and preventive maintenance
to be done and they detected that there was a drop off in sustaining each.
Yet, they did not systematically investigate why the problem was happening
nor explore how to correct it. Neither did they appear to recognize that their
push on supervisors for production results affected how supervisors promoted
and supported sustaining 6S and performing PMs. They assumed that supervisors
would continue with the prior goals as they pursued the new priorities. They
also expected the supervisors to "push back" if what they were asked
to do was not feasible. Managers did not read their supervisors correctly.
Rather than push back, supervisors and workers alike read the return to old
priorities as confirmation that the sustaining tasks were no longer important
and that further undermined their motivation to persevere in doing them.
In the SRLDsm method, each reason for the
results realized and not realized is converted into a learning. We define a
learning as the advice you would give someone else doing the same task based
on what happened. A useful statement of learning must have three elements: the
advice, the reason why it is important to apply, and what benefit it will produce
(Exhibit 4). The "advice" component tells what you should do to be
successful. The "reason" component tells the advantage doing it will
produce. The "benefit" component tells the improved outcome that will
result. It provides a reference for checking whether the learning is valid.
To make generating learning easier and to produce consistently complete items
of learning, we use a standard format. Exhibit 4 includes an example of a complete
statement of a learning.
4. A Complete Statement of a Learning
||Tells what you should do to
||Tells the advantage implementing
the advice will create
||Tells the improved outcome
the advice will produce
"Do... [State reason] because... [State benefit] and that...
of a Learning From Analyzing the Sustaining of 6S and PMs
sure that performers of a task experience an immediate benefit from doing
the task because that will sustain their motivation and that motivation
will drive continued task performance."
For brevity sake, we will summarize the key learning here. However, you may
view a complete list of the learning the team developed with each learning recorded
using the format depicted above [View].
None of the learning was truly surprising. One fact you will note is how interconnected
the factors are across categories. For example, if people need information about
expectations and the results achieved (Setting), you must include steps that
assess and report the results of sustaining the improvement in your method.
How to Ensure Improvements Sustain
Make sure people are aligned across groups to the purpose of sustaining an
improvement and motivated to accomplish it. Unaligned or unmotivated people
will detract, not contribute, to sustainment. Be certain that everyone with
a role to play has the personal resources needed to do it well. This means
they must be equipped physically (energy, strength, coordination, etc.) and
intellectually (knowledge, skills, and proficiencies) and possess any other
personal characteristics needed for success (e.g., willingness to push-back
should matters go awry).
With regard to method, make sure that how to perform the improved process
is fully detailed and documented. To be complete, the method must include
guidance for preparing, doing, and assessing performance of the improved process
and for reporting the results achieved. Also make certain what people report
includes any problems they encounter in sustaining the improvement and ideas
they have for overcoming them. This will continually uncover and clear obstacles
to sustainment that relate to the improvement itself. Remember, as workplaces
change, each improvement must adapt to that change if it is to sustain.
Be certain that performers of the improved process derive a benefit from
doing it. This benefit should be intrinsic to the process—e.g., the
improved process might remove a waste-related frustration or improve the quality
of their workplace. This will sustain their motivation and that motivation
will drive continued task performance.
Make sure that the new process people must sustain has no adverse impact
on them. Recall in our 6S and PM example that supervisors pressed performers
on producing product. You cannot expect people to implement an improvement,
here 6S and PMs, when doing so will detract from their ability to satisfy
a competing and higher priority task and make them subject to negative feedback.
Another adverse impact can result from failure to build in coordination activities
across functions and across shifts. Everyone affected by a new process must
be continuously informed about it, otherwise they will be blind-sided at some
point and that will undermine their support.
As regard the setting, provide the resources needed to do the process people
must sustain. This includes time, authority, materials, and information. Be
certain people have the authority to make the decisions needed to implement
the process. Ensure that the information available to all performers includes
a description of the problems encountered and fixes introduced. Without this
information reaching all involved parties, frustration will be introduced
and sustainment will breakdown.
Be certain that expectations about performance and targets for results are
explicit and that feedback is valid and regularly provided. With regard to
supervisors and managers, make sure that sustaining performance of improvements
is an explicit expectation of their jobs and that they ensure that an accurate
feedback system is in place. Also make sure that supervisor and managers are
accountable for producing results on these expectations. To set expectations
and ignore whether they are being realized is wasteful and destroys the credibility
of every leader.
Carefully align the incentives within your company to the purpose of sustaining
improvements and be sure that recognition and rewards are provided equitably
based on verified performance. This requires, in part, your performance feedback
systems provide valid information and that your managers and supervisors have
the discipline and courage to use objective data to as their guide in crediting
performance and counseling nonperformance.
You set a direction in the SRLDsm method
by identifying actions that immediately leverage the learning you developed
into producing better success at your task. In our example, the team developed
a check sheet [Download]
that it applies to evaluate how it proposes to sustain each new improvement
the team develops. This ensures that each effort fully incorporates the learning
the team produced. We hitchhiked on the team's work by adding a simple six-step
process to guide sustaining.
||Represent the process to sustain.
||Tip: Record what
is to be done, when, by whom, where, how, and why. Test the method first
using the sustainment checklist. A method should possess each listed feature
listed on the checklist to maximize its likelihood of sustaining. Adjust
the method to incorporate any missing feature. Next, test the method by
asking performers to use it and provide feedback on its completeness, effectiveness,
and ease of implementation. Use this feedback to fine tune the method and
your guidance fro doing it.
||Support performance of the process.
||Tip: Prepare people
to sustain the improved process. Make sure everyone is aligned with and
motivated to support sustainment. Ensure that they have the personal resources
to do their roles well. Make certain that your enabling systems (e.g., performance
management, measurement, and feedback; recognition and rewards; incentives)
also are aligned with accomplishing this task. Be certain that time, materials,
authority, information, and other required assets are supplied as needed.
Check your readiness by applying the sustainment checklist. Correct any
deficiencies you uncover.
||Measure sustainment and results.
||Tip: Measure both
the occurrence of the process as specified and its results. Make status
on each visible to all people involved in sustaining this improvement.
||Tip: Credit real
performance fairly. Build on the positive—meaning, recognize whatever
is accomplished even if it is less than desired.
||Remedy shortfalls in sustainment.
||Tip: Detect failures
in sustainment. Involve all parties in uncovering their causes and generating
remedies. Act quickly to remove barriers to success.
||Continuously improve sustainment.
periodic renewal sessions to reflect on how well you are sustaining improvements,
why, what you can learn, and how you can leverage that learning into greater
success. Do this semi-annually at first. Later, a yearly session may be
sufficient. Involve all the people responsible for sustainment. Use these
session to extract new learning, set directions for improved achievement,
recycle commitment, elevate overall approach, and sustain align and energy.
Strengthening and Refining Learning
If sustaining improvements is important to you, consider joining with us in
building a sound knowledge base to guide success in this task. Test the principles
we uncovered against your experiences with sustaining improvements. Share what
you find using the feedback option below. Send us any references that quantitatively
investigate sustaining improvements. We will integrate what you share and continually
revise this article so that it provides ever sounder guidance.
Byron, J.S. and Bierley, P.A. (2003) Working With Others. Hope,
ME: Lowrey Press.
Gilbert, T.F. (1978) Human competence. New York: Mc Graw Hill.
Carkhuff, R.R. (1983) Sources of human productivity. Amherst, MA: Human
Resource Development Press, Inc.
Malhotra, Yogesh (1998) Business process redesign: an overview. IEEE Engineering
Management Review, Vol. 26, no. 3, Fall.
Saks, A.M. (2002) So what is a good transfer of training estimate? A reply to
Fitzpatrick. TIP (quarterly news publication of the Society for Industrial-Organizational
Psychology), Vol. 39/No. 3 January, 2002, available on-line at http://siop.org/TIP/backissues/TIPJan02/06saks.htm.
1 Working With Others
skills are clarifying, confirming, constructive criticism, and hitchhiking.
These basic skills enable people to efficiently understand the ideas and information
another person is sharing and add their ideas to it in ways that build toward
better solutions (Byron and Bierley, 2003).
Published December 2005; Revised April 2006
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