Lean Navigation Blunders (a.k.a. Why You Can’t Find Santa’s Workshop Using a Compass)

When I was ten years old, I had a dream.  No, not the ‘sound asleep on my pillow’ kind of dream.  More like a ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’ kind of dream.  Yes, I had a dream.  My dream was to travel to the North Pole and tour Santa’s workshop.  It may sound silly to you, but to a wildly imaginative ten-year old boy (soon to embark on his career journey experimenting with electricity, blown fuses, tripped circuit breakers, and the occasional small fire) this was the real deal.

Phase I of my dream was, of course, the planning stage.  Not wanting to take this step lightly, I committed serious time to ensuring every potential situation being painstakingly thought out and debugged.  Five minutes later, my list of required provisions was complete:

  1. Assortment of snacks (my assumption was this may be a lengthy trip)
  2. A flashlight (for traveling at night – this would enable me to make good time)
  3. A compass (I knew I needed to keep heading North)

Looking back, I’m glad I never made the trip.  I can’t quite recall what stopped me from pursuing such a noble task…maybe when I woke up I realized it was a school day.  Regardless, I likely would have been very cold and traversing Northern Canada would have proven a significant challenge.

Lean thinking can no longer be categorized as a new ideal.  Lean manufacturing concepts, considered to be cutting edge in the 80’s & 90’s, have spread globally at a steady pace; paving the way for today’s lean thinking frontiers such as healthcare, service delivery, and project management.

With this vast history of lean implementation trial and error now fading from view in the rearview mirror, one would think we have amassed enough data points along the lean journey curve to avoid the unsuccessful attempts we witness today.

I’m amazed at just how many organizations still view a lean implementation strategy as a ‘one-time’ event:

  1. Assortment of snacks (the kick-off meeting should be entertaining and appeal to a wide audience)
  2. A slide show (magical beams of light to keep everyone focused)
  3. Unveil the ‘Lean Compass’ (announce we’re heading True North)
  4. Done

Sound and/or look familiar?  Where are we heading?

It is hard to believe there are managers, directors, VP’s & CEO’s still today that believe if they hand someone (or a newly developed team of ‘A-players’) a lean compass (metaphor) with the directive of leading the masses from point A to point B arriving at the promised land of reduced costs, better productivity, and improved customer service that the person or group will actually succeed long-term.  Toys for everyone, and we all live happily ever after.

After devoting nearly twenty years of my career to lean thinking and having the good fortune to work alongside some very talented folks implementing lean ideas, I would like to uncover the two major reasons I’ve found as to why this strategy so often fails, rather than succeed:

  1. You’re on your own – this is what you or the group realize after being handed the compass as you step out into the cold, then watch the manager, director, VP or CEO retreat into the warmth of their office.  This action has the following consequences:
    1. Other folks in the organization now have a choice.  Support new lean efforts, oftentimes in cold (difficult, unclear, uncertain) conditions with little help and visibility from management OR retreat into the warmth of their busy schedules.
    2. You end up spending (wasting) too much of your time providing reports, presentations, and status updates to all those who sit by the fires of unaccountability and non-respectfulness RATHER THAN spending time implementing value-added ideas.
  2. Those responsible for handing you the compass think the journey ends – lean thinking is supported by two pillars; Respect For People and Continuous Improvement.  It’s not about getting from point A to the North Pole.

I believe with serious conviction that the difference between successfully implementing lean anywhere and failure, involves just one simple thing…

Changing your thinking.

Do you know why you can’t find Santa’s workshop using a compass?  He wisely built it at the geographic North Pole.  A compass always points to the magnetic North Pole.  Yes, there’s a difference, and the magnetic North Pole (along with the South Pole) keeps moving.  Don’t believe me?  Read all about it here…maybe it will help start the process of changing your thinking.

Leaders today who think they can simply hand someone a compass to get to the ‘lean North Pole’ set themselves and their organizations up for failure.  Customer needs and economic conditions are moving targets that require and challenge us to continually readjust our lean efforts to better match those we serve.  Lean will always be about a continuous journey.  Long-term success is only guaranteed when those under our authority have our full respect and know they are not in it alone.  Working together we can accomplish anything that comes our way.

Who knows…we may even get a tour of Santa’s workshop.  Dare to dream.

About Steve Martin - theThinkShack

Hey there...I'm Steve. I built theThinkShack...a virtual hideaway about Lean Thinking and how it Connects to Everyday Life.
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4 Responses to Lean Navigation Blunders (a.k.a. Why You Can’t Find Santa’s Workshop Using a Compass)

  1. Benny says:

    Just a thought but regardless of the difference between geographic north pole and magnetic north pole, having that compass would do wonders for knowing if you’re headed in the general direction. In seeking Santa’s workshop you wouldn’t end up at the south pole if you were using a compass, for example.

    Thus it seems like as managers they are doing what they need to be doing – managing and delegating. The management is giving them magnetic north… which then gets them much closer to geographic north pole and thus reduces a lot of work and wandering.

    It seems to me like you’re asking the managers to do everything and simply hand the answer fully worked out to their underlings/subordinates/colleagues (however you want to look at it). If classes were taught that way not many people would learn methinks.

  2. Mark Welch says:


    I think what Steve is saying is for leadership to be out there at the gemba trying to understand frontline staff’s processes and problems, asking questions, breaking down barriers to progress that perhaps only they have the authority to do – Steve is asking for true leadership.

    I don’t think Steve is asking for or expecting managers to do everything and hand off answers. This would be very disrespectful of frontline staff. It would be robbing them of their opportunities to grow and develop as lean thinkers and problem solvers.

  3. Jim Fernandez says:

    Hello everyone. I’m new here. This looks like a really good place to explore Lean.

    Benny and Mark:
    This “management support and involvement” issue in Lean has been kicked around and complained about for many years. The solution is fairly simple and basic. Steve gives a little hint on what it’s all about. It’s about change. Here are two examples at the 300 employee company where I work as Lean Manager.

    Scenario 1. The owner of my company asks me to hold a Kaizen event on the product D assembly line. I hold the event and we come up with 10 ideas. 6 of the ideas get implemented, but eventually over the next 6 months we fall back to business as usual. The other 4 ideas never get implemented. After the first couple of weeks the owner never asks how things are going. He moves on to other bigger issues. Event over.

    Scenario 2. The owner of my company asks me to hold a Kaizen event on the product D assembly line. I hold the event and we come up with 10 ideas. We “plan” and “do” and squeeze out a few improvements. The owner begins to hold weekly meetings were the Kaizen team leaders return and report. At the meeting we “check” and “adjust” the ideas. 6 of the ideas get implemented. The owner asks to see the new standard work instructions that will keep the changes in place. During the weekly return and report meetings we modify and implement the other 4 ideas. 6 months later the owner holds another return and report meeting. More adjusting is done. Data reports on the product D assembly line become a part of the owners monthly reports. The event is never over.

    In scenario 2 the owner has changed his behavior. He has made lean activities a priority. He has become involved by asking for status reports. He has become involved in the C checking and A adjusting of the PDCA cycle. By being present at the return and report meetings he shows that the event is important. He does not even have to participate in the meeting. All he has to do is be there.

    • Jim,
      Great comments…welcome to theThinkShack!

      Benny and Mark,
      Thanks for commenting…sorry I was ‘away’ for some time…long story, I’m back now!

      Glad to see my ‘odd’ post finally received some comments. I was hoping for comments from a few different angles.
      Jim, the scenarios you provided really highlight the issue I was trying to explore. When management is properly engaged
      with lean efforts, successful implementation of good ideas goes way up.

      Thanks again for joining into the discussion. New thought provoking posts will be coming soon…looking forward to your thoughts.


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