Pushing the "Soft" Side of "Lean" Management Makes Improvements Last: McKinsey

Last Updated Nov 22, 2008 1:09 PM EST

Over the years, companies have found some levels of success by combining "lean" production methods with the famed "Six Sigma" initatives. According to McKinsey researchers, Exhibit A is Toyota which has consistently done well with such disciplined approaches (especially when contrasted against deeply troubled General Motors, Ford and Chrysler).
The "lean" approach, however, has two sides -- one hard and one soft. "Hard" for example can mean such tangible, factory floor efforts as just-in-time production. The "soft" side involves training a new crop of business leaders who can constantly and seamlessly improve efficiency, link all aspects of the company from the boardroom to the assembly line or word cubicle and improve how workers interact with each other. Doing so can bring truly sustainable improvements.

That is the theory of three McKinsey consultants, including David Fine in Johannesburg, Maia Hansen in Cleveland and Stefan Roggenhofer in Munich. They have written a new report titled "From lean to lasting: Making operational improvements stick."
They posit that working on the soft side can have much longer term benefits. "Hard" factors may come and go as technology improves, but the advantages of "soft" training can go on just about forever.

Problem is: "soft" is actually much harder to pull off because it involves much greater internal salesmanship and communications to foster new ways of thinking.

A few other points:

  • Rushing in to push a new tool kit without explaining overall goals diminishes the long-term importance of the change.
  • Communicating specific goals with a technical improvement can make corporate cultures more adaptable.
  • Doing so gives an initiative legs and staves of fatigue. Without understanding "why," workers get tired of the change process.
  • Executives often "outsource" implementation of the change effort to outside experts. But without developing "soft" leadership, workers don't sign on and soon slip back into old work habits which may not be useful any longer in the new environment.
  • Smart execution of the "soft" side of "lean" can make operational improvements stick, the authors argue.
What's your view?