CAUTION: This post is not a criticism of Lean, TPS, OpEx, and other CI initiatives, but a call to action for a higher order of strategic improvement – One that evolves a systematic architecture of leadership, sustaining infrastructure, digital technology integration, and behavioral/cultural development to new, superior levels of enterprise-wide excellence and global success.



The world of improvement is evolving before our very eyes. The opportunities are larger than ever before. The purpose of this post is to encourage all organizations to evolve their thinking to a bolder, enterprise-wide, digital technology-enabled, and culturally connected approach to strategic improvement that builds upon previous Kaizen, Lean, TPS, OpEx, and other CI experiences. More of the same old school tool approaches or continuing to mimic another organization’s initiatives is not enough to harvest these new opportunities.

Current State Assessment

For most organizations, the magnitude and rate of improvement from their Lean efforts has reached a maturity and decline point. Many Lean, TPS, and other CI initiatives have declined and in fact, disappeared in many organizations as they have traded in their formal continuous improvement initiatives for more instant gratification activities. Before you stop reading, there is plenty of benchmarking data out there to validate this current state. What happened?

First of all, the current state of CI initiatives is a testimonial of leadership and their organization’s failure to implement, sustain, and achieve the entitled benefits of a fully engaged and culturally internalized CI operating environment. Despite the best of intentions, it’s not Lean, TPS, or OpEx’s fault. By the way, this situation is either a temporary bump in the road or a catastrophic disaster – Your choice, that’s what the continuous in continuous improvement means. The need for improvement is not going away and in fact, the urgency is higher than ever before. But what else is going on that has much larger implications on CI?

“First of all, the current state of CI initiatives is a testimonial of leadership and their organization’s failure to implement, sustain, and achieve the entitled benefits of a fully engaged and culturally internalized CI operating environment.”

The World and its requirements for improvement have changed dramatically – And it continues to evolve daily. The scope of improvement has morphed from the factory floor to the enterprise and extended enterprise. The required velocity of improvement is ahead of most organization’s capabilities and rate of improvement. Improvement has become more technology and human dependent, requiring more creative thinking and advanced predictive and preventive approaches to improvement. So what happens when organizations apply the same thinking, same process, same people, and same beliefs to these shifting paradigms? The answer is being felt by the majority of organizations involved in CI initiatives. Value declines, commitment and interest declines, and CI falls off the radar – Again!

It’s not the end of the world if your Lean initiative has stalled out, declining, or is struggling to deliver true value to the organization . . . As long as you recognize and acknowledge this condition and the need to do something different to achieve different greater results. Easier said than done – Change can be difficult, even for the change experts.

TPS success or Lean failure are temporary oxymoron terms in the grander philosophy and correct practice of continuous improvement. The “process” of how we improve needs to improve to keep pace with changing business requirements and cultural development needs. Make sense? We definitely see this change in our consulting practice where clients are requiring higher and more immediate breakthrough improvements at a lower total cost. We have always continued to evolve our professional service offerings with client and market needs and hence, our service delivery model of strategic improvement is very different than it was 10 or 20 years ago.


Future Focus: Organizations can never achieve and sustain permanent breakthroughs in operating performance without consciously and deliberately driving and nurturing the right cultural values and behavioral patterns of excellence.

  • You can’t change culture with tools. History demonstrates the birth-death cycles of dozens of previous CI efforts. The typical executive mandated, top down, tools-focused, train-the-masses, measure compliance, report funny savings approaches to CI have not stuck because they eventually add questionable value. Tools-based improvements backslide when the attention and impetus is removed, plain and simple. More important, change leaders and practitioners have come up short on the human behavioral and cultural development aspects of change.
  • You can’t change culture by token commitments, edicts, and random behaviors all over the map. Culture is a continuously moving and churning outcome based on the combined behaviors, choices, and actions of organizations. You must focus on the means of adaptive leadership, strategy, a formal planning and execution architecture, technology and digitization, talent development, and real time closed-loop performance.
  • It takes a permanent, adaptive, systematic business systems approach to behaving, thinking and working. A higher order, daily business system approach to strategic improvement is the superglue that adapts, synchronizes, and holds the means of cultural transformation together. The name is insignificant, it’s the totally integrated business systems approach that matters.

Successful organizations are responding to the speed of change required to remain competitive with a more holistic, higher order daily business systems approach to Lean and continuous improvement.

Again, how are they responding? With greater focus on leadership, strategy alignment, sustainable infrastructure, digital technology integration, talent management, and cultural development . . . And much less focus on the methodologies and tools themselves.

Learn From the Past

In Western organizations for example, the Toyota Production System (TPS) is the current popular methodology of choice. Consultants and practitioners take TPS as Gospel and forget that once upon a time Toyota adapted in their own way, the basic body of knowledge of industrial and systems engineering principles, methodologies, leadership, and cultural development efforts into what is now known as TPS. They also injected creativity by adapting and integrating military and supermarket-type practices into their operating model. They didn’t mimic or copy GE, GM, ITT, IBM, and other large corporations at the time. Fast forward 70 years. They observed, learned, adapted, evolved, and perfected their knowledge into a single continuous improvement mandate, the Toyota Way. Just the opposite of most Western organizations, who have cycled through about 50 different fad, rebranded, alphabet soup improvement programs in the same time period.

On No, Not More Ohno

Taiichi Ohno is considered to be the father of TPS. Ohno advanced the basic principles of industrial engineering into a superior, culturally internalized sociotechnical operating system of CI. His principles work well, and it should have become the operating standard in every organization. But it has not worked as well for Western organizations for a number of explainable causes. Generally a major reason is the oversimplification and underestimation of Toyota’s long term efforts to achieve greatness. Ohno’s teachings are precious – However, as long as TPS is introduced and practiced in this manner it is a severely self-limiting CI initiative. Today his teachings are seventy years old, and Toyota and many other organizations have advanced far beyond these basics of good manufacturing practices, particularly with the integration of process innovation and emerging technologies. Those who have achieved the most success with CI are not mimickers and followers of TPS, but innovative CI organizations that learned and adapted TPS and many other data points in their own way. Things change after 70 years . . . And in today’s fierce global economy, every 2-3 years.

A continuation of a lite, mimic the tools strategy is limiting the potential of Lean in many organizations. So many people in organizations are running around with solutions and don’t have any idea about what problems they are trying to solve. Recognize the seriousness and risks of continuing on with this long term, Lean-lite mimicking trend to improvement. For decades continuous improvement has been exported and interpreted by Western organizations as an oversimplified piecemeal venue of individual tools, principles and the associated acronyms, jargonese, and manual storyboards. Six Sigma has followed a similar rainmaker dance and sing course: Walk people through the standard DMAIC methodology and statistical tools, give them the belt, sprinkle the instant experts across the organization to work on projects – any projects. It’s all about the visible activity and funny money savings, and not enough attention to alignment and real validated operating results. These approaches to improvement are extinct in our digital global economy gone wild. In retrospect, this is a fragmented, sub-optimization strategy of improvement. The journey has not been a holistic, enterprise-wide and culturally grounded and permanently internalized strategy like Toyota. It is not the fault of the improvement methodologies; executives and their organizations have continuously allowed themselves to fall into a kind of continuous improvement pit. Much of this has been driven by short term financial performance, where longer term efforts such as continuous improvement are always the first casualty.

A Bolder Approach is Needed

It is not the most popular statement, but many organizations and lean practitioners are stuck in their own same old comfort zones today. They trade off the broader philosophy, thinking and creativity and instead mimic all the right standard tools, principles, and jargon so they appear to fit into the insider’s Lean Manufacturing/TPS club.

Lean and continuous improvement is a lot more than memorizing and reciting what a particular symbol means in value stream mapping theory, or constructing gargantuan and non-actionable wallpaper maps of the company’s operations. And everyone knows that preaching about or mandating excellence doesn’t work. Continuous improvement has always been about riding against, and changing the direction of the herd. I’ve observed many consultants, experts, and practitioners become comfortable with their limited and more repetitive mechanical tools-based approaches to continuous improvement, and have become part of a new Lean/TPS herd. When this happens, it’s like any other herd. People are comfortable, emotionally attached, and settled in with their current practices and are not open to opposing or different viewpoints. It becomes a bit like Fake News . . . Fake CI, with questionable value and a loss of interest.

Continuous improvement is never steady state, it’s continuous – A continuous challenging of operating processes and practices, and continuous learning and development based on new and evolving improvement requirements and opportunities. Our intent with a reference model approach is to shift people away from the copy and mimic mode of improvement, and provide extensive details about architecture guidance and best practices of successful higher order daily XYZ Business Systems based on years of benchmarking and implementation experiences.

Many of the hard core TPS club members are the most difficult to change mindsets to a higher order of Lean because they have settled into their comfort zone as a Lean/TPS Tools Tradesperson or No Brainer Trainer. It’s a normal physiological behavior for people to return to what they know well.


You just can’t allow this to happen as a Change Master

Many of the hard core TPS club members are the most difficult to change mindsets to a higher order of Lean because their comfort zone is a Lean Tools Tradesperson or No Brainer Trainer. Many consultants are no longer adding value because they are preaching the same old stories in the same Field of Dreams mode (i.e., If you follow the recipe and go through the motions enough, the results will come). Everyone talks a good game about leadership, culture change, or sustaining the gains, but they always seem to gravitate back to the tools and techniques. They are cruising along with the same traditional tools-based approaches, debating about Kaizen vs. Lean vs. TPS vs. Six Sigma, and do not accept the recognition of the need for a higher order, totally integrated and systematic model of strategic improvement.

Too many consultants and practitioners justify their position by touting the need to master the basic principles, while the actual daily interpretations and practices of these supposed basic principles in organizations are severely flawed and totally misaligned. They keep on the track of focusing on the wrong things, taking the wrong actions, and getting the wrong results. Not knowing or understanding the need to improve how they improve, they take the normal physiological path back to doing what they know well. Why?  Because it is “the religion.”  What happens in religions?  People stand their ground, strictly follow their beliefs, and shut out change.  So what happens?  The continuous quickly falls out of continuous improvement.  There is no tangible operating results coming out of their efforts, and management commitment fades away. So too does the effectiveness of the Lean efforts. Lean and CI practitioners are like any other organizational position – One year of CI experience ten or fifteen times over makes people stale and less motivated to think creatively and change routines.

Finally, it is impossible to mimic transformation leadership and culture. TPS and Shingo are great references, but well intended interpretations of these topics cannot be reduced down to a standard recipe. The human emotion and cultural development side of improvement is the most important, and most complex challenge especially over the long term. Taiichi Ohono always talked about Toyota’s success by trial and error, “in their own way.”  Executives and their organizations must discover this secret sauce for “their own” organizations and “in their own way.”  They must define it, create it, and continuously nurture it to a higher level of performance.

“It is impossible to mimic transformation leadership and culture. Executives must discover this secret sauce for “their own” organizations, and “in their own way.”



Enterprise-wide culture change requires much more than mimicking a few Kata practices packaged on pocket cards from observations in a Toyota factory. All of these efforts have goodness, but they are not good enough to achieve the broader global strategic breakthroughs required in most organizations. Let’s look the reality of human nature in the face:  Many Lean consultants and practitioners have become complacent and are not able to see the new and emerging forest through the trees. Insanity – More of the same check-the-box recipe thinking does not produce different results. Enough of the traditional Lean thinking leads to protective coloration of a changing reality. Today Lean is a perceived commodity: Everybody is already doing it in some form or fashion with varying results. Consultants and practitioners who continue to preach the standard mantra, follow the recipes of others, and merely go through the motions are rapidly becoming extinct. It’s time to evolve beyond the Toyota Way and Toyota Kata and discover your new model of strategic improvement in your own way.

Evolutionary Lean

Again, let’s be clear and up front – We are not criticizing or discounting TPS, we are pointing out its “as-practiced” maturity or end-of-life status in the majority of organizations, and that a higher order of strategic improvement (which incorporates TPS and all other improvement methodologies focused across the entire enterprise) is needed to keep pace with the increasing speed of global change.

Let’s clarify the message of this post.  It’s not to abandon Lean or CI but to quickly get real and master the human and cultural fundamentals that makes an improvement culture sustainable.  It’s a fundamental requirement for all future improvement and transformation initiatives.  Stop the debates about Lean vs. TPS vs. OpEx or Toyota KATA, and stop mimicking the party line recipes of Toyota and other successes.  Lean from, think, adapt, and continuously refine these approaches to your own business requirements and culture.

“Let’s clarify the message of this post.  It’s not to abandon Lean or CI but to quickly get real and master the human and cultural fundamentals that makes an improvement culture sustainable.  It’s a fundamental requirement for all future improvement and transformation initiatives.” 

There is not some fandangle “What’s Next after Lean” solution. We are sending an urgent message about the need to improve how we improve. The purpose of this post is not to suggest a replacement for Lean but to encourage a higher order, major enhancement to Lean – Through innovation, technology, a formal systematic “business system” architecture, and by building upon previous experiences and successes. Recognize that the Lean philosophy is not a static, steady-state value proposition of improvement, and it is not limited to manufacturing. The World is changing, the notion of process is shifting to a higher human and technology content. The future requires a more holistic, integrated, and systematic approach to improvement – especially the cultural and technology elements of transformation.
There are so many complex developments in core enterprise professional and knowledge-based processes, emerging technology, kata and cultural development, and other areas that make this paradigm shift in Lean logical, possible, and necessary. The good news is that the unknown and undiscovered opportunities for breakthrough improvement are much larger today than any other time in the history of improvement. If you do not recognize this, then your organization is falling behind in our improve or die world.


Failure to implement, sustain, and achieve the entitled benefits of a fully engaged and culturally internalized CI operating environment is not acceptable. Every organization needs to knuckle down and master CI as a cultural standard of excellence. This goes way beyond mastering the tools, practices, and jargon of someone else’s CI initiatives. Toolitis and knocking off what others are doing has been the largest detractor to success for decades. Branding and repackaging many of the same basic fundamentals has not helped much. Think, Think, Think: If every organization is working on the same problems with the same approaches, where is the competitive advantage? The greatest powers of CI are engagement and empowerment, internalization, self-management, and continuous discovery (i.e., How can we get even better?). We need to inject innovation, creativity, and technology into the CI sauce. This requires more recognition and common sense than it does integral calculus and rocket science. Put your CI keys down, take a closer look at the world, critique and rethink your journey, and get on a higher order path of success. If you’re not good at continuous CI, you probably won’t be so good with future CI and transformation initiatives.

Everyone throws the words disruption and transformation around. For those who actually implement complex transformation initiatives, it is never a perfect giant step forward. Rather, it is a big giant step in the right vicinity with many loose ends that must be pulled in quickly to achieve success (through CI behaviors, choices, and actions). Failure to do this well results in new processes with even more new and far reaching defects. Transformation is not a destination but a journey. A strong and innovative CI-embedded culture helps organizations to move beyond the current state and discover the next innovation cycles of transformation.

My Part II Post – “How To Achieve Transformation-Scale Benefits From Continuous Improvement,” will provide a Business System Reference Model guide for strategic improvement including leadership, strategy and alignment, infrastructure best practices, integration of digitized technologies, and cultural transformation.
If you are interested in achieving greater benefits from your Lean, TPS, OpEx, or other improvement initiatives, please contact us to discuss your current status and assessment needs. 

Terence T. Burton is President of The Center for Excellence in Operations, Inc.

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