by Connie Polzin

Today's Environment

We live in a world obsessed with speed. How fast can cars or airplanes go? How quickly can information be distributed? How swiftly can people meet through speed dating? In many ways, faster has become synonymous with better. This dynamic applies in business, as well, and I am seeing it become increasingly prevalent in Lean implementations—with negative side effects. I call this approach “fast food” Lean because it is too focused on instant gratification and short-term solutions.

Case in point, at a recent Lean conference I attended, I listened as several organizations described their failed attempts at Lean. To achieve quick fixes, many attendees had unknowingly taken the fast food Lean route. But instead of shifting into a more sustainable diet—a customer-centric and long-term approach to Lean—these companies had continued to seek quick-fix solutions. After a year or more on their Lean journey, they were achieving insufficient results and some organizations were considering abandoning Lean altogether.

Point B’s Perspective

Where did fast food Lean come from? And why is it bad for organizations? I attribute the accelerated approach to ongoing efforts to “Americanize” Lean and also to consultants who have picked only the easiest parts of Lean to implement. In an effort to demonstrate results as quickly as possible, these consultants are focused on solution planning, often without consideration for how it may affect employees or even customers. Not surprisingly, there are numerous risks with the fast food Lean approach. The manifestations can take some time to appear but the warning signs include: 

Pursuing the wrong target

Fast food Lean typically focuses on solution planning to fix a problem, such as an organization’s inability to provide a targeted service or cost overruns for a product development effort. To solve the problem, the organization will work to redesign the process and find an interim solution. Unfortunately, jumping to a solution before understanding the root cause of the problem will not yield desired results—and more problems will keep appearing. For example, Point B is now helping a healthcare organization that had a history of fast food Lean. Prior to engaging with us, the company had held a series of Kaizen events to address isolated problems across various departments. At year-end, they still had many more problems to solve and leadership was beginning to doubt that Lean was the right answer.

Achieving sub-optimal results

Another risk with fast food Lean is that striving for quick fixes will likely produce a string of marginal results, especially if an organization is not looking at a process from end to end to identify and then address the root cause of the problem. The fast-paced approach can also result in organizational fatigue. This was certainly true for the healthcare organization, which had invested considerable money into planning the Kaizen events. However, the week-long sessions—each with an intense focus on a specific problem—had not produced demonstrable results. Worse yet, employees’ interest and willingness to participate in the process were waning.

Getting stuck in an unhealthy cycle

Rushing through the Lean transformation process fosters a culture that is focused solely on tactical outcomes. Unfortunately, organizations will usually hit a plateau with fast food Lean and then find it difficult to move away from the quick-win cycle toward a more strategic and sustainable Lean methodology. For example, it took the healthcare organization more than a year to reassess its approach and shift the culture toward a longer-term approach to Lean. Working with Point B, the organization committed to the turnaround and is now following a plan that has embedded improvements into every level. Results have taken six months or more to realize but have been up to three times better than previously achieved.

The Bottom Line

Based on our experience, we know there is a healthy alternative to fast food Lean: It’s getting back to basics. A Lean transformation takes time. It begins with understanding the core tenets of the Lean philosophy and with focusing on the customer. It continues by incorporating the methodology into the organization and involving every employee in developing a refined work ethic. Overall, Lean is about adopting a lifestyle change—one that requires an ongoing commitment to achieve organizational health and longevity.