So you plan on implementing lean manufacturing at your plant, and you wonder what impact it will have on your culture. It will have a huge impact. If it doesn’t, you did not successfully roll out lean.

Simply put, lean is a focus on the elimination of waste, which means changing the way you “identify” and “react” to waste. The best way to launch and sustain lean is to change the mindset and behaviors of your associates. Lean is based in educating and empowering the front line to improve your process at any level that reduces complexity, reduces variation, lowers cost, saves time or removes any form of waste.

Successful post-lean deployment locations can expect engaged associates who drive improvement activities that reduce cost and enjoy long-term successes. The employee morale will be better than ever, and I saw wonderful benefits, such as improved quality, repeatable setups, faster changeovers, lower product costs, fewer spare parts, lower down time and a much happier environment that translated into reduced turnover.

Plants with successful lean deployments almost always have a similar success story, beginning with the maintenance department. The reason is simple: They are critical to the success of the other departments, and maintenance will struggle to implement lean if they are working to help everyone else. Another key aspect of success is the “change champion.” This individual should be trained in 5S activities and empowered to lead kaizen events with the department or targeted areas. These leaders can quickly remove layers of waste that typically exist between those who “ask” and those who “do.”

Expect a learning curve when you first begin, and don’t focus on doing too much too soon. All meetings should have a “what” focus, a “why” rationale and—most importantly—end with action items that produce a “who” and a “when.” This is where good leadership must foster the proper “growing” environment—or you can do more harm than good. Lean is not a plant-to-plant competition focused on material efficiency and productivity. Just like popcorn, not all kernels “pop” at the same time, and the same can be said about cultures. It really requires cultivation and nurturing.

Your staff will be a huge part of the overall success of this cultural shift, but not all managers are comfortable moving away from “command and control.” The sustainability of this program depends on management allowing the front line some bandwidth and the chance to do it their way—as a team. Management must resist the urge to come in over the top and shut down the process when they don’t fully embrace the group thinking or latest idea.

It is OK to challenge and question, but be prepared to allow folks to have the chance to try, fail and own the results. It is OK to learn a lesson. The key is to learn from that lesson and graduate to the next level.

Leaders must support and foster discussion and offer reasonable critical thinking, or you risk having the team hold back and wait for their boss to dictate, like before. Once managers see an empowered team in action, they begin to realize their job has become easier, and for the first time they can start doing their job versus managing at one or two levels below where they should be.

Celebrate the “wins,” no matter how small. Take lots of before and after pictures to illustrate the transformation. Recognition helps reaffirm your appreciation for effort.