Too Lean?

Companies are constantly looking for new ways to make their daily processes and big projects as efficient as possible. A new practice, Lean implementation, attempts to achieve the perfect work flow by being flexible to new ideas and change while decreasing extraneous efforts. Though this idea sounds great in practice, Dr. Meera Alagaraja explores whether or not Lean implementation really does work and if it’s worth further exploration by examining past Lean studies in her new paper, “A Conceptual Model of Organizations in Learning-Performance Systems: Integrative Review of Lean Implementation Literature” found in Human Resource Development Review.  Here’s what she has to say:

I was inspired to research the topic spurred by curiosity as to why the academic and practitioner literatures appeared to focus extensively on understanding successful Lean experiences. The literature appeared to neglect studying implementation failures which I believe has much to offer in terms of expanding our current knowledge and understanding of why so many organizations discontinue Lean strategy implementation. I began to target action research based literature where scholars elaborated on Lean implementation experiences of organizations – the good, bad and anything in between. This was an important research goal and expectation for the study.  I was able to cull out 57 articles drawing from the contributions of many disciplines such as general management, operations and production management literatures reporting Lean implementation success and failures. Even though the literature reporting Lean implementation failures were by far fewer, I was able to identify a set of factors that enable (e.g. management commitment, internal and external partnerships) or hinder (e.g. lack of crucial knowledge, exclusion of key stakeholders) organizations from experiencing success in Lean implementation.

Some factors by their presence or absence appeared to share hindering or facilitating characteristics in different studies. These factors were grouped separately to highlight the need for considering the contextual challenges and opportunities specific to the organizations which influence Lean outcomes. For example, even though knowledge of Lean tools was identified as a supporting factor, their incorrect application based on mistaken assumptions about quality, cost, and delivery negatively affected customer value. This finding was critical as it sharpened the research to further study the impact of these factors on different levels of the organization – individual, team, organization. Most factors were classified using this additional lens. However, a few factors such as market position, nature of industry and customers etc appeared to have an even deeper impact. These were categorized as having the maximum effect at the systems level. As in the above mentioned example, the lack of crucial knowledge (incorrect application of Lean) had a powerful impact on employee performance, as well as on team, process and ultimately, undermining customer value. The four-level classification scheme was helpful in developing a conceptual model for framing organizations as learning-performance systems to emphasize the aspects of learning and performance that simultaneously take place during Lean implementation. From this standpoint, the simultaneous focus on performance and learning incorporates reflection in and on action, and presents a dynamic perspective for understanding the “nuts and bolts” of Lean implementation which is essential for success.
In terms of future research, the conceptual model calls for recognizing the development and implementation phases of Lean strategy as distinct. Further the model suggests adopting different approaches for eliciting leadership commitment (formal and informal) and involvement of teams (e.g., departments, divisions, shop floor teams) with respect to resource allocation and distribution so that the overall organizational performance needs are integrated and addressed as interdependent rather than what is typically portrayed in the literature as independent and mutually exclusive. Such an approach to Lean that typically privileges the efficiencies of performance and takes for granted the dynamics of learning and its demands would a valuableHRD cover contribution to the literature. In terms of practice, the conceptual model serves as a dashboard for assessing what Lean initiatives are currently in place, the individuals or departments responsible for implementing those initiatives, the impact of the interventions on areas (or levels) the organization hopes to remedy or improve, determine responsibilities and goals, identify resources, and potential barriers. Thus, an integrated sequence of change efforts enabling systemic improvements can be introduced in organizations for increasing success in Lean.

Read the entire article online in Human Resource Development Review, and sign up for e-alerts here so you don’t miss out on HRD’s latest articles and issues.

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