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June 11th, 2018

Has Lean had its time?

Mike Horton, Senior Consultant – June 2018

I was recently lucky enough to attend the excellent annual National Manufacturing Debate at Cranfield University. Mingling in the reception area upon arrival a fellow delegate who had read my ID badge asked what type of consulting I do. As soon as I mentioned Lean Six Sigma he interjected “what, Kanban’s and stuff? Isn’t that all a bit old hat?”.

I was slightly taken aback, partly because I didn’t expect to be on the defensive within five minutes of arriving, or indeed at all; and partly because it had been a long time since I had heard anyone use the phrase “old hat”, it’s become a bit old hat.

The best response I could manage on the spot was to mutter a feeble “well it seems to be keeping me busy”, but it played on my mind throughout the day. Has Lean had its time? Is a radical career rethink required? Later in the day, watching a BAE Systems presentation in which one of their employees stated she had “halved my team’s assembly time by leveraging the power of augmented reality”, it did start to feel like Gemba walks and visual management were distinctly low-tech tools.

Driving home I got thinking about the difference between the mind-blowing improvement technology used by BAE, and the reality of the companies that I have been helping lately. A few weeks ago, I began a project with a manufacturer in the East Midlands. They are a very successful infrastructure supplier to many of the UK’s best known high street brands. In this era of extensive restructure within the retail industry, business is going well, but they decided to ask for consultancy help because they lack capacity within their existing facility to meet the growing demand for their products.

As with any project like this, where there’s just a few days available to review the current operation, instigate some changes and leave them with recommendations that could help transform their business, I started by having a look around the site. There was no Lean implementation of any kind, and little knowledge of the concept. Finished goods were stored throughout the facility, there was no segregation of materials or designated storage areas, the only visual displays were health and safety related, overtime levels were high, scrap levels seemed high but were not monitored.

Lean offers practical solutions to all of these problems, and it starts with the absolute basics. A brief Lean Introduction training session was well received; daily 10-minute meetings between supervisors have started to highlight potential problems before they become real ones; and 5S was met at first with scepticism, then acceptance, and before long, in some areas, even enthusiasm. I am confident that by the end of the year their business will be drastically improved, for the benefit of everyone involved, and Lean will be largely responsible.

Lean Thinking

It seems that in manufacturing there is a growing operational excellence gap between large and small companies. Re-watching BAE’s video online, their facilities look fantastic – clean, well-organised, clearly signed, the sort of places that seem appealing to work in. Lean hasn’t become “old hat”, it’s simply become such an integrated part of the way they work they no longer need to talk about it, working in a different way would be unthinkable. Meanwhile, according to a House of Commons Briefing Paper on Business Statistics released last year, 96% of UK businesses employ less than 250 people. No doubt they will all have different levels of business improvement knowledge, but it’s probably safe to assume that the majority are closer to the 5S end of the scale than the augmented reality end.

Not only that, there are still new Lean examples to get excited about all around us. Last week when dressing my 7-month-old daughter, I noticed that Marks & Spencer have started colour coding the under-side of press studs on babies’ sleep suits, to help parents avoid fastening them incorrectly. Simple, cheap, effective, and based on a deep understanding of customer requirements and behaviour, this is the exact type of Poka Yoke solution that I have been championing in gas plants, aerospace factories and offices ever since learning the technique myself over a decade ago.


It seems that in an ever-changing world with new technology constantly providing astounding solutions to problems we didn’t even realise we had, Lean Six Sigma may be facing a marketing crisis. The answer to the perception that it is becoming a bit “old hat” is that it provided the foundations upon which the incredible production techniques being pioneered by the likes of BAE Systems were built. The reason it is so important not to write it off, is that to do so would be to deny many of the small & medium sized businesses the opportunities which enabled the much bigger ones to achieve their success.

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Mike HortonMike joined Bourton Group last year building on a successful career in performance improvement with Air Products. He is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt with nine years’ experience of leading hard benefit generating projects, across multiple functions of a large organisation. He has delivered numerous Continuous Improvement training courses, and coached colleagues at all stages of the Lean Six Sigma training process.

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