Lean for Success: Going Beyond the Tools

Achieve Sustainable Continuous Improvement in Your Organization

By Dan Brown, independent consultant, UT CIS

There are very few companies who have not dabbled in Lean since 1990, the year that “The Machine that Changed the World” was first published.  Authored by James Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos, the book provided a comprehensive description of Japanese manufacturing methods, referred to as lean production.  At the time of the book’s publication Toyota was half the size of General Motors, but within twenty years Toyota, through application of the lean principles in the Toyota Production System, had overtaken GM as the world’s largest automaker. Toyota continues to be a leader in business performance year over year.  So, we must ask, “Why, despite applying the same lean tools and using the Toyota Production System as a model, have most companies found lean sustainability so elusive?”  

Over the years, the experts at the UT CIS Tennessee Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program have helped hundreds of companies begin their lean journey.  However, the data clearly shows that the only way to fully transition to lean and sustain the results, a company must move away from continuous improvement efforts as event-based or the “answer” and must embrace continuous improvement efforts as the way they do business.  We have found that making this move requires three conditions.

Continuous improvement activities must:

  1. strategically align with the business’ priorities
  2. be embedded in all levels of the organization
  3. create a culture of continuous learning

Strategically Align with Business Priorities

All continuous improvement efforts must align with the highest-level goals of the organization. Those goals must cascade down to the teams so that improvement activities in all areas contribute to the achievement of the common goal. This alignment, with all teams pulling in the same direction and focused on the same objective, exponentially accelerates the rate of improvement in the organization.


Embed in all Levels Within the Organization

Continuous improvement must be a part of everyone’s daily work rather than a series of special events undertaken by a select few. The continuous improvement efforts of teams at all levels of the organization, aligned with the cascading goals, lets every individual understand their connection to the corporate vision and how their continuous improvement efforts affect the results. This alignment creates employee engagement by allowing each individual to contribute directly to the business objectives and bolsters an individual’s satisfaction with their work.


Create a Culture of Continuous Learning

Sustainable continuous improvement requires a culture of continuous learning. To continuously improve requires individuals and teams to explore the unknown; to do things they haven’t done before. It requires them to conduct experiments to learn about things beyond what Mike Rother, in his book Toyota Kata, refers to as their “Current Knowledge Threshold.”  Experimentation leads to learning and learning leads to innovative improvements. This systematic use of scientific thinking throughout the organization builds organizational capability.

For an organization to truly achieve sustainable continuous improvement, it must transition from “lean events” to team led cycles of improvement, which are aligned with the business objectives and supported with daily coaching by supervisors and managers.  Iterative learning through experimentation needs to be embraced, with the results establishing the specific tools to apply to the situation such as TWI, Problem Solving, 5S or others. Continuous improvement is only sustainable within an organization if it is part of management’s daily work and daily discussions, leading to a continuous improvement culture throughout the organization.



Daniel Brown is an independent consultant with the University of Tennessee, Center for Industrial Services. Dan has worked in the manufacturing sector for over 30 years and has a great deal of experience coaching teams in areas such as the strategic implementation of lean enterprise and the development of a continuous improvement culture. He has worked extensively with teams at manufacturing facilities throughout North America, Europe and Asia teaching the principles of lean and six-sigma with an emphasis on practical problem solving for sustainable results.


Works Cited:

Rother, Mike. Toyota Kata. McGraw Hill, 2009.