The key to lean is Action Research. Giving credit to Kurt Lewin, those on the front lines continually assessed the current situation, created actions towards a desired state, implemented, evaluated and recycled the process. Americans frequently ‘bought’ the product at a certain stage of its development and imposed it. The first time a client included me in a Lean training, the current situation was assessed by supervisors WITHOUT the workers! In a current draft of an article I write: Lean manufacturing, which originated in Japan and swept across U.S. plants, is but one example of a process that uses action research as the core implementing activity. Action research is distinct in that it not only involves the people who will be affected by any change (and who often carry out the change) in the analysis of the problems, but also in the identification of possible solutions. So called lean manufacturing in the U.S. is frequently lacking on both counts. Too often, American companies try to impose a solution discovered elsewhere and neglect the action research process through which it was developed, sustained and constantly improved.
There are other downsides to the implementation of lean manufacturing that are not talked about much. Many organizations apply lean thinking to staffing prior to doing the work of having effective lean processes. Also without sharing the gains in terms of increased wages for the remaining employees. This impacts morale and creates a condition at many plants where if a few employees call in sick they literally have to start shutting down operations. The same consequences can come from going too lean on parts and supplies.
Lean principals are great, lean implementation is often a disaster.