Lean Busy vs Ignorant Overload Bliss

One of the biggest challenges of a Lean Transformation is to create the ‘Vision of Excellence’; what should we aim to achieve over the coming years, what is possible?

This is often problematic because the majority of people in the organisation ‘don’t know what they don’t know’; that is, they haven’t seen what truly Operationally excellent companies look like, and hence cannot envision what the size of their opportunity really is.

A great way of seeing what world class looks like is through the attendance of best practice visits to operationally excellent companies on what are called Kaikaku experiences.

The complementary approaches of Kaizen and Kaikaku


The Kaikaku experience

Kaikaku is the Japanese word for breakthrough improvement, and is complementary to Kaizen, and therefore the term ‘Kaikaku Experience’ is used to highlight that the visits to these world-class organisations is intended to open the eyes of the participants, providing them with a ‘Eureka moment’ of inspiration that they can use to create a truly ambitious vision for their own organisation’s Lean journey.

It’s important to note that these visits are not conventional benchmarking visits and are not ‘industrial tourism’, but instead are curated, deep learning events that are intended to be highly impactful on the attendees.

However, whilst the participants are resoundingly positive about their experience, one consistent feedback that I receive from many of them, especially those to Toyota sites, is that they are impressed but;

“I wouldn’t want to work there”

When this is probed further, the underlying reason is that they observe team members who appear to be constantly busy and they often comment that the work must be tiring and monotonous, with the team members working to the cadence of their standard work, whether operator, support staff or managerial, all aligned to the Takt time of the customer demand.

Ignorance is bliss

Nevertheless, over my many years of practising Lean Leadership, and studying many world class organisations, I have come to the conclusion that the real issue is that Lean organisations ‘Make Problems Visible’, the problem in this case being that, to be a World Class organisation, it takes focussed, deliberate and consistent effort to meet your customers’ Sustainability, Innovation, Quality, Cost and Delivery requirements.

In those organisations that are operationally excellent, the magnitude of the task, and the way that it is solved, is blatantly obvious to all and their people are trained and engaged in being up to the task. Just like a top performing sports team, they know that it takes training, hard-work, persistence and innovation (Kaizen) to succeed, and all of them understand their ‘field position’ in the team’s success.

“To be a World Class organisation, it takes focussed, deliberate and consistent effort to meet your customers’ Sustainability, Innovation, Quality, Cost and Delivery requirements.”

Contrast that with a traditionally managed organisation, where processes are loose and ambiguous, standards weakly applied, and competence development poor. In those organisations, the solution to the problem of meeting their customers’ needs is not so obvious, and people have much more perceived autonomy to do the job at their own pace. However, the irony is that, when I discuss the biggest issues that people have in traditional organisations, it is their overload: Long hours, stress, too many meetings to attend, constantly dealing with recurring problems. The very symptoms that they perceive to exist in Lean organisations are the very symptoms that they acutely suffer from in their own organisation.

For many, the reality of being ‘Lean Busy’ is undesirable compared to the ignorant Bliss of the overload in their traditional organisations.

An example of making the problem visible

A good example of what happens when the problem is made visible was when I was coaching some Leadership Team colleagues through the establishment of a meeting cadence for the business.

As I was presenting to the Leadership Team, I began with the future state proposal, which was a visual map of the required meetings to run the business on a monthly cycle. The reaction from the team was powerful and passionate in their dislike, voiced best by one of the group, who said:

“This is far too many meetings, we can’t possibly commit to spending so much time in meetings”

We then discussed this and the consensus was, indeed, that spending so much time in meetings would take them away from other important work. I then asked the question to them of how much time they currently spent in meetings and they all agreed that it was significantly less time than was proposed on the future state meeting map.

It was at this point that I showed them the current state map of the existing meeting cadence. This caused quite some consternation, as it demonstrated that they currently spent more than twice the amount of time in meetings than the proposal asked.

The Lean reality of a standardised meeting cadence was far less comfortable for the Leadership Team than the ignorant bliss of twice the time in meetings.

The outcome was ultimately very positive, as we were able to properly analyse the meeting map and understand how each of them fitted into the decision making processes for the business and to optimise them through the rationalisation of attendance, setting clear objectives, and standardising into Terms of References for each meeting. The end state was a nearly 60% reduction in the number of hours in meetings.

Being Lean Busy

Being busy is part of a successful business, but the contrast to traditional organisations is that the business is focussed, deliberate and productive. Everyone knows what they need to do to make the outcome a success and, where there is a deviation from standard, everyone knows how to solve those problems.

Nevertheless, the transition from the solace of being unaware of the wasteful activity keeping people busy, to the clarity of the focussed effort required to be successful is a challenging journey and, in my experience this is a significant cause of inertia in a Lean Transformation and should be considered seriously by those of us responsible for leading the change.



by Philip Holt

Philip Holt

Philip Holt is Senior Vice President, Global Transformation, at GKN Aerospace and a Board Member of the Operational Excellence Society. He studied Engineering at Manchester Metropolitan University and Management at the Wharton School of Pennsylvania and the University of Warwick, was an engineer at Gillette and led the Lean Deployment worldwide at Philips for over twelve years.  He achieved Lean Master status and has summarized his 30+ years of experience and insights into Lean Leadership in his previous book Leading with Lean and his most recent book, The Simplicity of Lean. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

If this article has piqued your interest and you’d like to know more about creating a Lean thinking organisation, the Axiom Business Book Award Winning, “The Simplicity of Lean: Defeating Complexity, Delivering Excellence” is available globally.

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