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Jon Terry


Successful Lean Strategies

Six lessons learned from high-performing lean teams

Published: Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - 12:02

Lean solutions represent an evolved method of approaching how business is done. It’s all about transparency, about you and your colleagues being accountable and maximizing efficiency to bring the most value to your customers. At the team level, lean processes help guide teams and individuals to optimize their efforts; accentuate the positives; and unveil, and ultimately correct, the negatives. A focus on analytics and agility in response to market changes is the name of the game.

In 2016, LeanKit set out to establish our first lean business survey in an effort to learn more about how lean tactics are being applied in knowledge work. During the course of two years, the survey data have been compiled into the “Lean Business Report.” Through this report, we hope to tell the story of how the lean business movement is spreading and transforming some of the world’s most competent and successful organizations, often one team at a time.

As we analyzed these data, one question became the central focus of our journey: What do the best and brightest lean teams have in common? We were most intrigued by so-called “super performers,” or teams that were exceedingly mature in their integration of lean techniques. With these insights in mind, we want to share with you some of the top lessons learned from high-performing lean teams.

1. Begins at the executive level

Adopting lean strategies requires teams to radically transform the way they work—and transformations rarely happen overnight. To cope with the growing pains of working out a new organizational philosophy, it helps to have an executive sponsor in the boardroom that has your team’s back. This upper-management facilitator can understand the value of lean, communicate that value to her decision-making peers, and support the team during their transition. When surveying top-performing lean teams, 69 percent stated that executive sponsorship was the single most helpful tactic in achieving success.

2. Every path is unique

No matter the team, no matter the organization, everyone has his own unique road that he travels on his journey toward lean greatness. In some cases, lean teams are founded as an organizationwide, top-down model aimed at completely changing the culture of the company. In others, lean adoptions may begin simply by one individual taking the lead and influencing the entire team, then later on, the organization. Sometimes it’s from the software development team; other times it’s from IT.

So don’t sweat if things aren’t going as quickly as you’d like, or if your methods are evolving in what seems to be an odd way. Whether inside out, top down, or all around, your lean practice will look entirely different from every other company’s, even within the same industry. What’s most important is that the team stays in sync and forges onward. According to high performers, keeping together means using and sharing common internal language, maintaining consistent practices, and ideally, implementing common tools and software along your lean journey.

3. Begin your fascination with metrics and data

A primary element of lean thinking is searching through, analyzing, and relying on data to make vital operational decisions. This means avoiding “relying on your gut” or “going with your instincts,” two ideas that may work just fine in other walks of life but aren’t a part of the lean philosophy. This also means shooting beyond just taking the opinion of the highest paid person on the team as gold, or sticking with past experience to make your choices. By making data the key source of the decision-making process, we can ensure that customers are receiving great value in an emotion-free process.

High-performing lean teams don’t just measure the performance of their work. They also obsess over their own efficiency and speed using lean metrics like cycle time, lead time, and current team and personal work-in-process measures. These data allow teams to home in on specific details of their work and gain a unique perspective on how it’s being executed. This improves not just the quality of work, but also how the work is accomplished.

4. Read the instructions and learn to use your power tools

When constructing a house, it’s critical to have a variety of tools to accomplish the multitude of tasks involved. With that said, if you try to hammer in a nail with a circular saw, you’re not very likely to succeed—and you might hurt yourself along the way. The same holds true with lean tools. Although many teams reported using a variety of lean tools—from kanban to continuous flow, and even OODA loops (the observe-orient-decide-act cycle for decision making developed by military strategist John Boyd)—if you begin by trying to use all of the tools at once for every task, you risk overwhelming the team with far too many options.

For most teams (about 83%), their lean journey included the use of kanban, a visual method of managing workflow. Using kanban, teams can learn how to actively manage their work, rather than letting their workflow control them. From there, high-performing lean teams implement work-in-process limits, which can significantly improve speed of delivery and quality while simultaneously reducing stress across the team.

5. Don’t get discouraged early on

Our survey data showed that although lean performance measures definitely improve with experience, beginners should not be discouraged in their efforts. 88 percent of teams identified as beginners reported moderate to significant improvements in project success by managing workflow using lean methodologies. This level of success continued to improve as they further worked out the kinks in their techniques.

6. Teamwork: the true advantage

“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”

This quote by consultant and author Patrick Lencioni speaks to the often neglected, yet fundamental, truth that all high-performing lean teams know. That is, at its core, lean is all about teamwork.

When we work together, smarter and not harder, we better enjoy our pursuits, and our customers ultimately stand to benefit the most.

First published April 29, 2019, on the thoughtLEADERS blog.


About The Author

Jon Terry’s picture

Jon Terry

As chief evangelist for Lean-Agile strategy at Planview, and former co-founder of LeanKit, Jon Terry helps enterprises around the globe discover how to increase effectiveness, optimize processes, and deliver value faster with Lean-Agile principles. Terry actively seeks to raise awareness of the benefits of Kanban and visual project management, and is a highly sought-after presenter within the Lean-Agile community.  Connect with Jon on LinkedIn.