Is Lean Still Relevant? Interview With Gary Langenwalter

Gary LangenwalterGary Langenwalter is a consultant with the Portland Consulting Group. In this interview, he makes the case for Lean’s continuing relevance.

Jathan Janove: What is “Lean”?

Gary Langenwalter: Lean is a way of thinking that focuses first on the customer instead of our own bottom line. Lean asks the question, “What adds value to our ultimate customer? What would they willingly pay for?” Then it uses organization-wide continuous improvement to identify and eliminate all other activities inside our organization. In so doing, it substantially improves our bottom line.

Jathan: Lean has been around for years. So why should we care about it?

Gary: Do you want to stay in business? The first organization in ANY industry that embraces Lean will inexorably pull ahead. The next 2-3 will play catch up. And the ones at the back will cease to exist.

Jathan: Isn’t Lean only for manufacturers, on the shop floor?

Gary: No. Lean philosophy and techniques have been successfully implemented in government (including prisons), health care clinics and hospitals, airlines, banks, dental practices, professional service organizations and non-profits, to name a few.

Jathan: A friend’s company put in Lean and didn’t get any results. That means it doesn’t work, right?

Gary. No. Best guess is that they did “lip-service Lean,” not “real” Lean. An organization must actually embrace the culture of Lean — that of empowering employees — to achieve the results that accrue from continuous improvement. Coffee mugs, t-shirts, and posters and banners are not enough. In fact, they are frequently counterproductive.

Jathan: What’s the typical payback on Lean if an organization does it right?

Gary: The organization gains 1-2% increase in capacity every month, with no investment in facilities or capital equipment. They achieve that by reducing internal inefficiency and waste in their processes. Lean organizations also tend to attract and retain the best employees, best customers and best suppliers, thereby solidifying their hold as the No. 1 preferred organization in their industry.

Jathan: What are the 3 most important Do’s and Don’ts if I’m starting to put in Lean?

Gary: DO:

  1. Understand that it’s a journey, not a destination. Realize that culture change will be required, and that it will be uncomfortable for some people. Walk the talk, and support the culture change when the inevitable pushback occurs.
  2. Educate top and middle management about their revised roles and changed expectations.
  3. Create and empower continuous improvement teams throughout the organization.


  1. Make a big PR splash with coffee mugs, t-shirts and banners. Yes, you’ll need a formal kick-off meeting, but make sure to follow it up with real action and tangible long-term commitment. Otherwise, your organization will (correctly) ignore this as another flavor of the month.
  2. Continue to use the same metrics and KPI’s — instead, you must adapt them to Lean and a culture of continuous improvement.
  3. Punish “failures.” Instead, become a learning organization. Celebrate the courage to try new things. Lean is all about trying and learning. And that requires “failing.”