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Leadership and Culture Development is Critical to Lean/Six Sigma Success

The Machine That Changed the WorldLean/Six Sigma was brought into more popular use with the Total Quality Management/Continuous Quality Improvement movements over two decades ago (you can read some of the roots of approach in this online Introduction to Firing on all Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance). In 1990 MIT researcher James P. Womack published The Machine That Changed the World which brought the term “lean production” to the world. He’s since written many books expanding on the topic and founded the Lean Enterprise Institute.

In speaking to the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) in Toronto this fall Womack outlined these four common misconceptions of Lean:

1. Cost Cutting Exercise – Lean is really about increasing output with less waste.
2. Focused on Factory Production – listening to customers and running the entire enterprise on Lean principles is critical to long-term success.
3. Inside Your Own Walls – effective implementation encompasses the entire supply-chain in linking internal and external partners to increase service/quality.
4. Management Can Delegate Lean – two-way communication and continual cooperation is needed across all levels across the organization.

Womack based much of his research on the success of the Toyota Production System. Jeff Liker, Professor of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan, has extensively studied Toyota. His many books on their breakthrough approaches include The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer. Jeff’s “four key failure factors” of Lean/Six Sigma align well with Womack’s work. In a previous blog, “Lasting Organizational Change Balances Doing and Being“, he identifies the failure factors as:

• Leadership lacking deep understanding and commitment
• Focus on tools and techniques without understanding the underlying cultural transformation required
• Superficial program instead of deep development of processes that surface problems solved by thinking people
• Isolated process improvements instead of creating integrated systems for exceptional customer value

As with many organization transformation efforts the return on investment of Lean/Six Sigma has ranged from some dramatic successes, lots of mediocre results, and dismal failures. Many service and healthcare organizations are now reaching for these powerful tools in an attempt to improve quality, streamline operations, and improve customer service. If they’re going to succeed leaders need to practice Lean Leadership and focus on culture and leadership development as much as Lean tools and techniques.


For over three decades, Jim Clemmer’s keynote presentations, workshops, management team retreats, seven bestselling books, articles, and blog have helped hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. The Clemmer Group is the Canadian strategic partner of Zenger Folkman, an award-winning firm best known for its unique evidence-driven, strengths-based system for developing extraordinary leaders and demonstrating the performance impact they have on organizations.


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