Lean tools and techniques can deliver lower costs, higher quality, and major improvements in customer service. But many companies struggle to achieve these benefits—even after many years of trying. Why is success so elusive? The reasons vary. In many cases, lean approaches aren’t applied consistently across plant networks. Some efforts lose momentum because they fail to widely engage and train employees, so results aren’t sustained over time. When companies do succeed at applying lean approaches to manufacturing they often stop there instead of expanding their efforts more broadly to other areas of the business. These problems result from differing degrees of lean maturity. Lean practitioners attain rising levels of performance as they increase their expertise, just as sports teams in the champion leagues play with greater skill than those in the local leagues. (See Exhibit 1.) Like professional athletes, companies pass through three levels, or “leagues,” as they increase their expertise:
Level 1: Lean Local League—Learning the basics
Level 2: Lean National League—Implementing a lean production system
Level 3: Lean Champion League—Expanding beyond manufacturing
Companies must progress through the different maturity levels in order to improve their performance and enjoy the resulting benefits. Unfortunately, most get stuck at some point, and their lean efforts stagnate. Let’s look at the characteristics of each league more closely and explore what actions are needed.