One Does Not Simply “Implement Lean”


In the past, I used the term “implement Lean” and it's a hard habit to break. Back in about 2008, my client in the British NHS system really didn't like the term “implement.” One of the internal process improvement leads made a good case that the word “implementation” implied an effort that had an end point. We're not done implementing Lean. We keep improving.

title_pageAs I've tried to start saying more, we are “Practicing Lean” (hence the title of this eBook project).

By the way, Michael Lombard has contributed a new chapter to the book, which I just released yesterday. Existing readers / previous buyers have been notified about the book update. If you buy the book today, you'll likewise get future updates for free too .

If you're a fan of Lean Memes, this one will resonate with you (especially if you're a Lord of the Rings fan):


Last week, when I was teaching a workshop on Kaizen Coaching for our KaiNexus user conference, we had a great discussion about Kaizen being something you don't simply implement. It's an ongoing practice.

But think of other ways that term “implement” might seem silly.

Does one “implement leadership” and suddenly become a leader, yet alone a world-class leader? By the way “world class” is another silly term, since it's often unprovable and sort of meaningless and just sort of thrown around.

Does one “implement integrity?”

Does one “implement humility?”

For all of the organizations out there that try to copy Toyota or implement Lean, many of them are just picking and choosing certain tactics or ideas.

Principle #1 of the Toyota Way set of principles says:

“Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.”

See my friend Chad Walters' blog post on the topic.

How many organizations are “implementing long-term decision making” as a goal? How many are “practicing” long-term thinking?

If you violate Rule #1 are you really practicing Lean?

Chapter 1 of the outstanding book Toyota by Toyota is all about leading with humility (and courage).

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If you're not abiding by the first lesson (humility), as explained by former Toyota employees (Darril lives in the San Antonio area), are you really implementing Lean yet alone practicing Lean?

What else do you see missing from the implementation or the practice of Lean in some organizations?

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  1. Carrie says

    I think people like to use “implement” because it sounds strong and decisive but don’t really take the time to think about the meaning behind it. I’ve also heard “implement a patient centered culture”.

    One of my other favorite phrases I’ve heard that sounds good on the surface but is silly when you think about it is “We want to get to our current state”.

    1. Mark Graban says

      True, “patient focus” or “customer focus” is not something you simply implement either.

      What’s behind the “current state” comment? Do they realize that the standardized work isn’t being followed, therefore the supposed “current state” is not the real reality either?

      1. Carrie says

        No, they meant get to the future state that they mapped out and then that would be the current state.. once they get there. We were doing a lot of mapping at the time. People tend to latch on to buzzwords and like to use them, I think.

        1. Mark Graban says

          Ah… yeah, that becomes the new current state.

          People do love buzzwords, especially when the goal is sounding smart.

  2. Christian Paulsen says

    Mark – this is all very true. It seems that any of these terms imply that we are simply rolling out some tools and tricks of the trade. The truth is much deeper and difficult to understand for those who are not truly on the journey.

  3. Kevin Meyer says

    Good point… but boy is this going to be a hard habit to break!

  4. Liz Guthridge says

    Great wake-up call for me because I use the term “implement strategic initiatives.” Based on your post, Mark, and the discussion here, the phrase is woefully out-of-date and inaccurate.

    Thanks to continuous improvement though, I have a great opportunity to change for the better!

  5. Mark Graban says

    Kevin or Liz – don’t be too hard on yourselves.

    I’m currently going through the final edits of my manuscript for the 3rd edition of “Lean Hospitals” and I still used the phrase “implement” a lot in the 2nd edition from 2011.

    Mea culpa.

  6. David Shechter says

    Many organizations and individuals are not clear on what lean actually is. The term lean means many different things to different people. A hospital I am familiar with published its mission a few years ago that stated ” We fully embrace lean”. After reading that statement I wondered what they actually meant. They do have a lean promotion office and several employees that coordinate lean projects; does this mean they are ” implementing” lean? I don’t think so because they operate in the context of classic command and control Taylorism management.

    1. Mark Graban says

      It’s easier to say “we embrace Lean” just like it’s easy to say “patient safety is our top priority” or “we engage everybody in continuous improvement.”

      Walking the walk is harder.

  7. Steven Gordon says

    Perhaps, “initiate” or “ramp up” would be a more accurate verb.

    Also, Lean seems too generic to “implement”. I can see implementing a practice like Kansan or Kaizen, but not Lean. Similarly, I can see implementing Scrum or XP, but not implementing Agile.

    1. Mark Graban says

      I agree words like “initiate” or “adopt” are better words to suggest a starting point…

  8. […] Lean is not something you simply implement. It’s not a set of tools that you buy and a Lean transformation doesn’t magically happen because you hired a consultant. […]

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