Do ‘Quick Wins’ Hurt Lean Initiatives?

When an organization decides to pursue an improvement initiative (Lean, Six Sigma, etc.), and let’s be honest, they almost always start out as an ‘initiative’ or ‘program’, the organization needs to determine which areas it will apply this new technique in first.  Some will argue that the starting point should be an area that will provide the most benefit to the organization, regardless of the time to complete the initial project.  However, most times, we are told to “go for the low-hanging fruit” in order to show the benefit of the methodology to management.  How often does this backfire?

I was speaking to an executive at a healthcare organization the other day about how they were using their Lean Sigma Black belts, and if they were still seeing the benefit from the approach.  He told me they were using them, but were not holding Kaizen or Rapid Improvement Events anymore, just focusing on the projects.  I asked him why and he said simply, “we don’t have time for that.”  Deciding not to push the issue, I wished him the best of luck.

The organization had gone from attempting to embrace Lean as an improvement methodology through the use of engaging the people through Value Stream Analysis and Rapid Improvement Events, investing thousands of dollars over the past several years, to that of having a couple of “internal consultants” act as project managers, and reduced the size of the Lean Sigma group by 50% in the past 2 years.

There are several reasons for the demotion of the LSS group in the organization, and it appears to be following the “Continuous Non-Continuous Improvement Cycle” I presented in an earlier post.  These reasons range from senior management not really buying-in from the beginning (paying it lip service), to financial issues in a post merger environment.  However, one issue that has clearly hurt was the approach to get quick wins and try to make an impact.

While an organization can’t try to “solve global hunger” at the start, there must be an attempt to balance those activities that will generate immediate impact and those that are longer term in their improvement to the organization.  This becomes very difficult, since in many organizations these executives have the strategic attention span equivalent to the life-cycle of a mayfly.  When the ‘quick win’ approach is taken, the savings / impact becomes like a drug to the executives.  They see the benefit and they want more – NOW.  Usually they are able to get this for a while, since they are very interested in the program at the beginning and show their support thought attending events and removing obstacles, and in general there are a lot of opportunities in healthcare for immediate improvement. However, as these opportunities dry up, and the work gets harder, while the executives focus shifts elsewhere, the expectation is to continue to deliver exponential results (a clear sign the truly do not understand the fundamental concepts at play here), and those who are leading the Lean charge, try to appease.  This leads to two possible outcomes:

1)      The Lean leader starts to “stretch” the numbers and begins to take credit for things that can’t be attributed to the improvement efforts (see “Consultants who give Consultants a Bad Name”)or,

2)       The Lean leader attempts to deflect the impatient executives and focus his team on issues that will improve the long-term situation.

In the first outcome, the Lean leader’s peers begin to resent the portrayal / perception that the Lean group are the only ones who can generate any savings and quickly begin to disavow themselves and stop supporting the initiative.  Additionally, depending on the organizational culture, they either directly or indirectly, start disparaging the initiative to senior executives and each other.  The senior executives, seeing that line-management does not see the benefit, become disenchanted with the Lean effort.

In the second outcome, the patience of the senior executive group usually wears thin, and although there are still benefits coming in, they are not quick enough.  They also begin to feel like “they can do this themselves” and do not need the expert facilitation and coaching a Lean expert can provide.  The Lean effort is doomed.

To help mitigate the risk of an organization falling prey to this, it is important to thoroughly educate the senior leaders on what starting an initiative such as this will entail.  Yes, there will be some quick wins that have huge financial impact, but more often than not, there will be smaller wins, with minimal financial impact.  What needs to be stressed is that these wins add up, and over time, the benefit is huge.  The other important impact to stress is that an initiative such as this, in order to be successful, is teaching the organization to think differently.  The approach to problems becomes more systemic and lateral instead of the traditional siloed approach.  The challenge is this takes time, especially in the beginning.  But, it is time well spent.

Healthcare executives who want to embrace Lean initiatives need to slow down, relax, really take the time to understand, and maximize the impact on the organization.  Healthcare executives who are focused only on cutting costs should not call their actions a Lean initiative, but should call it what it is – Cost Cutting, nothing more, nothing less.

Let me know your thoughts.


9 thoughts on “Do ‘Quick Wins’ Hurt Lean Initiatives?

  1. Glenn,
    Do ‘Quick Wins’ Hurt Lean Initiatives? – they sure as heck shouldn’t. I’d even go as far as saying your lean ‘initiatives’ should be nothing more than one long continuous journey of quick wins. That’s what I was taught anyway.

    Almost always, (yes, I’d love to constructively debate) companies do not sustain lean initiatives because of ONE thing…the wrong culture.

    Because they do not have (and/or nurture) the proper culture, they inevitably fall into what you call the Continuous Non-Continuous Improvement Cycle. In fact, after reviewing the cycle…the process may be self-fulfilling.

    Regarding phase 2, the Implementation phase, you note that “once the senior leader is in place, regardless of the title (VP, Director, etc.),the next step is to create a CI team and begin training leadership in the organization on the many tools of CI.”

    This is how the majority of companies try to launch their lean ‘initiative’. This is also why so many fail. Lean is not an initiative, a project, a whatever. Lean is a system.

    For many reasons (again, lively debate is possible) lean implementation efforts took a wrong turn and ended up where we now find ourselves; thinking that lean is all about reducing waste by choosing and using the right lean tools.

    And so, the cycle continues.

    I cringe at hearing all the ‘hoopla’ regarding Six Sigma efforts in lean healthcare. If you HAD pushed the healthcare executive to provide some examples of tangible success, do you think he could have come up with anything? What healthcare organizations DON’T have time for is long, drawn out ‘projects’ with no accountability for results. They move away from rapid improvement events because they don’t have a culture that allows them to fail.

    The good news is that where there’s chaos, there’s opportunity! We need to raise up the fallen lean pillar of Respect For People and get back to true Continuous Improvement.

    Here’s to better cultures in companies that are trying to make a difference. Here’s to better leaders that nurture better cultures. And here’s to more long continuous journeys of Quick Wins.

    • Steve,

      Excellent comments!! It absolutely comes down to culture, and as long as Lean is an “initiative” and not a “system” or a way of doing things (thinking), then organizations will have limited success at best. Unless senior management, who drive and reinforce the culture of the organization change their actions, we will be mired in this unfortunate cycle. My challenge here is not to dismiss ‘quick wins’ but to try to get organizations who want to move toward a Lean system to fully understand, and think about what they are getting into and the impact it will have.

      The frustrating part is that too many leaders simply want to get results without any worry about sustaining the gains. It takes true leadership, courage and vision to chart a new direction for the organization, which is usually, but not always, is the result of a ‘significant emotional event’, and until recently, many healthcare executives have not felt enough “pain” to make transformational changes to the culture. My fear is that unless they do start to change, the pain will be fatal.

      Thanks for the comments!

  2. Good post Glenn. I think the quick win approach while it may help convert some skeptics is really just a results focused approach. We know the true power in lean it the process of people thinking about improving value to the customer. It is not about saving a few bucks. You get that by managing the process of improvement.

    Tim McMahon
    A Lean Journey

  3. I think quick wins help. But managing how those quick wins happen is important. Explaining while quick wins are possible that much bigger wins are possible by finding more critical (and often more complex and requiring more effort) improvements. As quick wins are achieved try and be sure they are building capacity at the same time. Get people to think in new ways and see improvement opportunities. Also have people learn new tools to attack more problems with.

  4. Glenn,

    Great post. Quick wins can definitely help make that intial impact and get executives excited about what Lean can do for them … but this methodology should also be the prevailing way we continually address waste. At some point the senior leaders need to decide if they will pursue a Lean transformation (a change of culture as Steve notes) or just focus on more traditional process improvement projects. Of course, they need to understand the differences as well as the potential implications of those options. In the Lean transformation it becomes a delicate balbance of managing expectations. So before those first events ever happen the expectations for measureable results needs to be “negotiated”. The scorecard to track the impact from Lean events needs to include all of the key business fundamentals as equals … Safety, Quality, Cost, Delivery and Morale (or your organization’s equivalent) … rather than just tracking savings. Of course, in a transformation these fundamentals will eventually be aligned through the use of Hoshin Kanri. And you’re right, later, as an organization moves from activities driven exclusively by the Lean Leader(s) to the development of the organization as problem solvers, the gains from individual events will typically dimish. The executives need to understand that this is an expected phase in the tranformation and that over time, the many small gains will outweigh the few large ones. In the absence of this framework of expectations the “top down” leadership of the transformation will evaporate.

    Whether it is easy, or even possible, to always manage such expectations is another discussion altogether.

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  7. Glenn,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. Ironically, I just posted on my blog about the critical importance of quick wins! (

    I think you’re right about the danger posed by quick wins. However, I don’t think that should lead us to tackle the biggest, hardest problems at the outset. First, people will develop their problem-solving skills by working through several PDCA problem solving cycles. Second, the emotional and motivational factor of quick wins shouldn’t be ignored.

    So, yes, there’s danger. But I think it’s worth the risk.

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