Roberto Priolo’s lean column: Lean on me

Posted on 3 May 2013

Roberto Priolo, editor of Lean Management Journal on debunking lean myths and creating a radical upswing in lean programmes in SMEs.

Roberto Priolo, Editor of the Lean Management Journal
Roberto Priolo, Editor of the Lean Management Journal

There are so many misconceptions around lean thinking that I am sometimes led to wonder if there is anything in lean that is understood fully.

When we think we have got it, we tend to say that at the end of the day, it is just common sense. But this is a partial truth and a dangerous one to be free and easy in expressing since it can lead to complacency and disregard for the achievements of lean thinking.

Successful lean implementations are not solely founded on common sense – the principles behind them are. This is why, if you lay strong foundation in systems and practices for problem solving and continuous improvement and make sure the implementation is meaningful to all involved, commonsense will lead employees to achieve those sought-after results. This is the conclusion Faith Geary of the Ministry of Justice comes to in her article from the May issue of Lean Management Journal.


LMJ is also hosting its annual conference this month on May 21-22 at The Hilton Metropole, Birmingham NEC. For more information visit: https://www.themanufacturer.com/eventsite/lmjannualconference/

The May issue aimed to debunk a number of lean myths, including the idea that Toyota is no longer a lean role model following the recall crisis and the difficulties with suppliers after the natural disaster that hit Asia in early 2010.

Jeff Liker and Tim Ogden take the myth-busting argument even further, asking if Toyota was ever the Holy Grail of lean? They progress to identify five misleading beliefs about the Japanese car maker  concluding that one should not confuse Toyota with the Toyota Way, and certainly never limit its approach to lean to a copy-and-paste exercise.

“In the European Union alone, over 20 million SMEs represent 99% of businesses… Even if there were only a small percentage increase in the number using lean thinking to thrive, the gains in terms of innovation, productivity and growth would be incredible”

Yes, nothing is quite as it seems when it comes to lean.

It’s with this mind that I am now preparing the June issue of the journal, which will focus on the application of lean in small and medium-sized companies.

There is often a tendency to think that lean is more appropriate for, and easily applied in, large enterprises. They have access to greater resources and, perhaps, have a more pressing need to streamline and standardise processes across plants, regions and international borders.

But SMEs have a couple of aces up their sleeves when it come to lean. First of all, they are naturally nimbler and more responsive entities. Secondly, in a small environment where everybody knows everybody, it is much easier to develop shared goals and nurture the creation of a widely-accepted culture of continuous improvement.

And when it comes to resource – well, lack of resource can actually represent a big incentive to undertake a lean journey and be a reminder of the real need for success.

In its June issue, Lean Management Journal will feature a case study of an Australian family-run company called Black Widow, which will help us to understand how family ties and dynamics can impact on the way lean thinking is implemented.

We’ll also speak with Zingerman’s, based in Michigan, who will discuss the challenges posed by a volatile employment base to an SME trying to lean.

Zingerman’s Mail Order delivers gourmet food around America, mostly for same day delivery. For 11 months about 30-40 people work at the company. But that number balloons to around 100 at Christmas time. How has the company developed a flexible lean model which still endorses continuous improvement and engagement despite this?

In every area of the world, small and medium sized businesses outnumber large companies and corporations. In the European Union alone, over 20 million SMEs represent 99% of businesses.

Imagine the untapped potential these companies represent. Even if there were only a small percentage increase in the number using the guidance of lean thinking to thrive, the gains in terms of innovation, productivity and growth would be incredible.

Here’s another task for the lean community then: encourage more SMEs to realize the potential of lean. It may just take the communication of a few examples and an altering of perception to set them on a journey which could transform company and employee prospects.