How Manufacturers get the Most from a Lean Consultant.


After reading this article, you will learn Lean Manufacturing initiative’s challenges and opportunities. 

Specifically, for manufacturers seeking efficiency improvements. I’ll highlight the roles of Lean consultants and clients for initiative success. The main reason for failure is the client’s passive role and disengagement. These put Lean consultants in challenging positions. I’ll highlight the strategic partnership potential. Also, the significant returns on investment from Lean initiatives. You will also learn about client responsibilities. I emphasize the need for:

  • Direction,
  • Executive commitment,
  • Active participation, and
  • Support.

I’ll stress the importance of client commitment to overcome challenges to sustain success.

Manufacturing executives always look for ways to improve efficiency and their bottom line. Most manufacturers have embraced some improvement methods.  A common one today is Lean manufacturing. According to studies, success rates for Lean Manufacturing initiatives hover around 24%. Also, over 70% of manufacturers engage in an improvement effort.

Did You Know?

  • Success rates for Lean Manufacturing initiatives average around 24%.
  • Over 70% of manufacturers are actively engaged in improvement efforts.
  • Lean consultants often provide an average ROI close to 500%.
  • Average engagement with Lean consultants is worth seven to eight figures in savings, both tangible and intangible.

Key Takeaways

Relationship Recognize Lean consultants as your strategic partners, not just hired hands.
Expectation Provide clear direaction and expectations early in the initiative,emphasizing quantifiable business outcomes(i.e. higher quality, improved productivity, reduced turnover,etc.).
Commitment Ensure executive commitment by eliminating the perception of Lean as a program and encouraging the entire executive team to embrace it as a management system.
Participation Actively praticipate in Lean transformation efforts by attending updates,engaging with employees,and
removing obstacles.
Education Educate the organization on basic Lean priciples without overwhelming them,eliminating misconceptions,and strategically selecting employees to become advocates.
Strategy Incorporate strategy deployment ealry in the process to align Lean initiatives with business strategy and set key performance indicators reflecting short-and long-tem goals.
Culture Embed Lean manufacturing in the company culture,formalizing it as a part of the business’s operating system and integrating it into values, human systems(i.e.,screening, hiring, promotion, etc.)and daily rituals(i.e., daily meetings and gemba walks).
Development Invest in employee development to cultivate leaders with a continous improvement mindsets, dicipline, and
consistent results.
Obstacles Overcome inivitable onstacles, including resistance to change and chnage fatigue, by persisting, maintaining
leadership alignment,and balancing short-term gains with long-term sustainability.

Often, manufacturers will engage the services of a Lean consultant. This partnership significantly improves the chances of success. However, the client still carries significant responsibility for the effort’s success. Initiatives often fail because of the client’s lack of understanding of their role. What ends up happening is that the client takes a passive role and becomes disengaged. This puts the Lean consultant in a challenging position. The Lean consultant leads change without authority or support. The leader’s disengagement leads employees to disengage from the effort. They end up brushing it to the side. As time passes, the Lean consultant becomes frustrated. The client questions the capabilities of the Lean consultant. Finally, the client wonders why the effort never got any traction.

If this sounds like you, understand my intention is not to judge or point fingers. My goal is to create awareness about your role in creating a successful partnership. I encourage you to read this article with a receptive mind. Be ready to learn things that will only benefit you and your business.

Reading this article will help manufacturing executives understand their role in this partnership. Leading to improved success rates.

The Lean Manufacturing Consultant: A Strategic Partner.

Before I get into the client’s role, let’s understand the importance of a Lean Manufacturing Consultant’s role. These professionals bring significant experience and knowledge in:

  • Implementing Lean Manufacturing principles
  • Facilitating change, and
  • Coaching employees on adopting Lean practices.

Many clients see consultants as a pair of hands or merely hired help to perform a menial task. Manufacturing leaders, I’m here to tell you this is a mistake. Consider the impact this partnership could have on your business:

  • Increased capacity,
  • Reduced costs,
  • Higher profits, and
  • Faster response rates.

There are also benefits for you personally:

  • Reduced stress,
  • Career growth, and
  • Recovered time to focus on strategic-level work.

“I want you to consider this briefly and ask yourself: Why would I neglect someone trying to help me solve my problems?”

In most cases, these are not small problems. To give you some perspective, our average engagement is worth seven and often eight figures in savings (tangible and intangible). Our return on investment (ROI) averages close to 500% and often more. Does it make sense to invest in something with that high a return and then ignore it? Of course not!

I respectfully encourage you to see this relationship for what it should be: a strategic partnership.

The Key to a Successful Partnership with a Lean Consultant: Client’s Key Responsibilities.

1. Provide Direction and Clarify Expectations

This should happen early in the initiative. The senior leader must articulate the organization’s direction. Everyone must understand their role and expectations. The leader must emphasize the importance of the consultant’s role. Also, clarify how everyone should welcome his/her ideas and recommendations.

“Always articulate your objectives as quantifiable business outcomes.”

Articulate your objectives as follows: “Objective: [Verb] from [current state] to [future state] by [desired date] (i.e., Reduce rework costs from 9% of sales to 1% of sales by EOQ3). This ensures complete clarity, high ownership, and urgency and facilitates accountability.

2. Executive Commitment.

I often hear Lean Manufacturing referred to as a program. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To be successful, the entire executive team must embrace Lean Manufacturing as a management system. A system we are implementing to run the business more efficiently and profitably. Leading by example will send a clear message to the organization. The message is that this is not a fad and that we’re fully supporting this effort. The expectations for the executive team include:

  • Embracing change
  • Actively working on removing obstacles, whether process, resources, or people-related.

“As the senior leader, you must confront and demand your executive leadership’s full support and commitment.”

Read this article we wrote that describes the consequences of implementing Lean without commitment.

3. Active Participation.

When leaders become active participants, they amplify the success of lean transformation. The senior leader can take part in many ways:

  • Attending project updates,
  • Being present during daily huddles,
  • Engaging in conversations with employees,
  • Providing guidance, and
  • Listening.

4. Providing Support to the Lean Consultant.

A Lean Manufacturing implementation requires support. This support can include:

  • Resources,
  • Removing obstacles,
  • Time, and
  • Allocating personnel to take part in improvement activities.

Many manufacturers fail to provide this support. This leads employees to become frustrated and disengage from the process.

Setting Yourself Up for Success: Preparing for Lean Transformation.

1. Educating the Organization,

I wouldn’t recommend embarking on an extensive and deep training initiative. The most appropriate approach here is educational training on the basic Lean principles and practices. Avoid giving people so much information that they become overwhelmed and discouraged.

Ensure you address misconceptions such as “Lean is about cutting jobs” or “Lean is for management or the shopfloor only.””

Be strategic in who you educate; you’re looking for employees who will embrace the lessons and become advocates of your vision. Read this article on five forms of ROI from teaching employees Lean Manufacturing principles.

2. Assemble a Steering Committee.

I recommend the senior executive select his/her direct reports, the executive team, to oversee the Lean implementation effort.

“When this responsibility is delegated down, it loses the perception of being a top priority for the organization.”

Maintain Lean success as a shared responsibility. Hold the executive team accountable. You will have a much more focused effort if you. Incorporate the strategy deployment aspect of the process so the executives can decide where to focus improvement efforts.

3. Establishing the Baseline.

One of the first steps to improvement is to understand where you are today. In Lean, you start by completing a value stream mapping exercise. Ensure you involve a cross-functional team of leaders, managers, and workers. This process will uncover opportunities for improvement within the business. This includes manufacturing operations and supply chain processes. A separate session will focus on the business’s back-office and support functions, such as:

  • Human Resources
  • Engineering
  • Accounting
  • Quality
  • Customer Service, etc.)

Lean Consultant can help you prepare for Lean implementation.


The Lean Implementation: A Never-Ending Journey.

1. Implementation Activities.

During a Lean implementation, a long list of improvement activities will be identified:

  • A be a simple task (Just-Do-It)
  • A project (A3), or
  • A focused rapid improvement event (kaizen events)

In the last one a cross-functional team will tackle a constraint from:

  • Root cause analysis
  • Solution development, and
  • Implementation

in a very short period of time (3-5 days for execution).

“All of these are opportunities to develop your employees, identify future leaders, tap into your workforce’s talent and creativity, and reap the benefits of accelerated improvement.”

Ensure you seize every opportunity to engage as many people as possible. Create company-wide visibility for the projects’ progress. This will improve ownership and accountability. Also, ask questions to uncover any obstacles and reduce employee frustration.

Watch this video to learn guidelines for leading a Lean Manufacturing transformation:

2. Incorporating Strategy Deployment.

As a management system, lean manufacturing provides a robust process for helping manufacturing executives realize their strategic vision.

“Ensure this process is installed early in the implementation so that the connection between business strategy and Lean is not lost.”

In this process, the executive team must identify the business’s key performance indicators. These KPIs must reflect a balance between short- and long-term focus. The executive team should see Lean as a lever for enabling business strategy. For instance, if you are expanding to a new market and setting up a new manufacturing plant. There should be a plan to ensure the plant is set up as efficiently as possible using Lean principles. Finally, the annual strategic planning process should provide the direction for improvement activity. Also, ensure there is a business case for every resource allocated. The process should maintain the focus on continuous improvement year after year. Choose your strategic initiatives commensurate with your resources. In our experience, 3-5 strategic initiatives are plenty for most organizations. Make them challenging enough to force significant improvements rather than small tweaks. Read this article to learn five ways strategy deployment helps improve your manufacturing business.

3. Lean Daily Management.

The client should identify and assign leaders for each value stream. The Lean consultant will provide valuable input for this task. Once identified, train these leaders in Lean Daily Management practices. The value stream managers will use visual management boards and the PDCA methodology. These tools help manage and improve performance through daily smaller and incremental countermeasures. A team of:

  • The senior leader
  • The value stream leaders, and
  • The consultant

Should collaborate on identifying the best KPIs and targets for the area. These KPIs must align with the business’s strategic goals. Once implemented, these practices must become the standard you expect from any leader.

Making it Stick: Sustainment Responsibilities.

1. Embed the Management System in the Company Culture.

Lean manufacturing should be formalized as part of the operating system of the business, should also be visible in the companies’ values, human systems (recruiting, hiring, onboarding, performance management, recognition, etc.), and observable in daily business rituals (Gemba walks, monthly reviews, employee awards, etc.).

“Push for this level of formality. Informal practices last as long as the advocates motivation to enforce them or until they exit the organization..”

2. Investing in Employee Development.

Develop leaders who:

Creating a steady flow of high-potential leaders does not happen without a concerted effort to coach, mentor, and train leaders early in their careers. The Lean consultant can help in this regard. This is one of those long-term aspects of the client’s role. The returns may not be immediate, but the effort is worth it.

Read this article to learn some tips about sustaining your improvements.

Finding Success in the Face of Challenges: Overcoming Inevitable Obstacles.

1. Helping the Lean Consultant Overcome Change Resistance and Fatigue.

Expect resistance to change and be prepared to persist. Start by helping people understand:

  • Why we are pursuing this strategy,
  • What’s in it for them, and
  • The benefits for the business and everyone involved.

Listen to people, empathize, and validate their concerns. However, do not waver from your commitment. Be mindful of how much change your organization can absorb at one time. Consider your current situation and plan on adjusting the pace of your efforts accordingly. Proactively anticipate ways to provide additional support to make the transition more manageable.

“Never accept pausing or stopping your efforts altogether.”

Be mindful that this suggestion often comes up as a solution to being too busy or not busy enough. Be ready to respond by saying:

  • “This is exactly why we need this; our busy season becomes chaotic,” and
  • “Slow times are the best times to work on improvement; this will help us prepare for the busy season.””

Watch this video to learn ways to get buy-in from your team:

2. Ensure Leadership Alignment.

The senior leader must ensure the executive team is fully behind the effort. Tread lightly in this arena;

“The higher the leader, the less time they should be given to buy in. This is one of the most important roles for the client; if you tolerate passive-aggressive or resisting behaviors, the effort will suffer.”

Remember, these leaders have the highest level of influence in the organization. I tell clients that if we have a leader resisting, even if it’s someone you respect and you’ve worked with for a long time, we must be able to overcome this.

3. Balancing Short-Term Gains with Long-Term Sustainability.

Avoid falling prey to a short-term mentality. Quick fixes highlight this and are counter to sustainable solutions. The client should provide guidance considering short-term improvements but never sacrificing long-term goals. For instance, focusing solely on cost reduction and neglecting to invest in people development is a common occurrence. Additionally, long-term successful efforts often take a long time and require patience. Manage your own expectations and those of your team to avoid falling prey to becoming impatient and throwing in the towel.

Case Study: Lean Transformation of a Manufacturing Business.

We worked with a manufacturing client struggling with:

  • Low on-time deliveries,
  • High inventory,
  • High employee turnover,
  • Excessive equipment downtime, and
  • A dysfunctional culture.

The client recognized they needed help. They searched for a Lean Consultant and asked us to help them turn around the business. We quickly educated the client on their role.

We completed a value stream map and developed an improvement. We then trained leaders in Lean principles and leadership skills.

We helped the client identify and develop a set of metrics. This helped understand performance at a deeper level. We also helped install a process for reviewing performance and developing countermeasures regularly.

We noticed that a team member was the primary source of dysfunction. This was a highly regarded employee by the senior leader. We made him aware of the problem. After providing ample opportunity, this leader was removed from his role. Most of the dysfunction went with him.

The business also had high unplanned equipment downtime. We worked with the maintenance team to develop and implement an improvement plan for equipment maintenance.

Finally, we engaged the front-line leaders in leadership and Lean management training. We gave this group the tools to improve their operations management skills.

Among the results we helped this client achieve are:

  • Improved on-time delivery by 58%.
  • Reduced customer complaints by 53%.
  • Reduced internal scrap by 69%.

The main reason this engagement was successful is because the owner was committed. I told him from the beginning that he needed to remain committed. I added, we’ll rock the boat, and your people will resist. I know it was tough for him, but he persisted, and today, his business is much more profitable and stable. We also implemented company-wide incentives for the business’s collective performance. This created a sense of peer accountability and teamwork. People understood that everyone needed to perform for everyone to be successful..

Conclusion: Success Comes from a Strong Partnership.

When implementing Lean, I recommend you understand your role and be proactive. When engaging a Lean Consultant, treat the relationship as a strategic partnership. This line of thinking is the most important success factor in a Lean Transformation. The client should also muster the courage to overcome the abovementioned challenges. This includes having tough conversations with those resisting. Finally, the client must have the psychological stamina to endure:

  • Criticism,
  • Resistance,
  • Doubts,
  • Constant change, and
  • Adaptation.

Be clear on your objective and with your team that embracing these principles is not an option.

  • Lean Consultant can help with assessing your manufacturing business.
  • Lean Consultant help increase profit margins,
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