Fixing a Continuous Improvement Effort That Stalls – and It Will Stall

Posted by Shea Sutherland

Lancaster.jpgLantech CEO Jim Lancaster, author of the new Lean Enterprise Institute book "The Work of Management", explains on the latest Lean Blog podcast why and how he revitalized improvement tactics and strategy.

After years of overseeing and participating in successful continuous improvement (kaizen) events, Lantech CEO Jim Lancaster was listening to an improvement team report results from its latest effort when he had an unsettling déjà vu moment.

“I’ve heard this before,” he said, vividly recalling the incident a decade ago. “I’ve heard this problem before and I’ve heard this solution before in this area.”

In a frank interview, Lancaster tells Lean Blog podcast host Mark Graban that he ultimately realized the company was repeating improvement activities that had deteriorated after just a couple of years. As a result, all the work implementing lean management improvements wasn’t hitting the bottom line.

A star of the early lean movement in the 1990s, Lantech earned acclaim converting operations from wasteful batch production to efficient flow production, dramatically cutting lead times and costs while increasing manufacturing velocity and quality. It freed millions of dollars in inventory. The remarkable results were featured in the Harvard Business Review and business best-seller Lean Thinking.

But like many companies implementing continuous improvement strategies, Lantech struggled over time to sustain gains and improve financial performance significantly.

In the just-released podcast #283, Lancaster explains how the Louisville, KY maker of stretch wrapping equipment, learned how to sustain continuous improvement activities to spur growth and become much more profitable. The key to revitalizing the program was Lancaster spending months doing frontline work himself. He realized first-hand how variation, which is inevitable in any work environment, caused processes to deteriorate, despite the best continuous improvement efforts.

As a result, Lantech developed a new daily management system of “cascading, cross-functional, standardized steps” for every employee and executive. The system connects all the value-adding work of the business to support resources that catch and reverse process deterioration immediately every single day.

Lancaster and Graban discuss:

  • Early success when lean consultants “descended” on Lantech
  • Why success turned into “frustration”
  • Key lessons Lancaster – and every CEO – will learn by actually doing frontline work
  • The two big mistakes in judgement executives will make when they are “distant” from frontline work
  • The management blunder that causes lean efforts to unintentionally slip from a priority into a sideline “hobby”
  • The powerful but overlooked business rule why catching and reversing process deterioration quickly supercharges competitiveness and profits

Listen or download the podcast at

Lancaster reveals more how-to details about the daily management system’s development and implementation in The Work of Management: A Daily Path to Real Improvement, just published by the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute.

About the Book

  • ISBN: 978-1-934109-02-1
  • Pages: 171
  • Price: $35.00
  • Editors/Producers/Bloggers: For review copies of The Work of Management or to interview the author, contact LEI Communications Director Chet Marchwinski or 617-871-2930.

Readers can buy the book by clicking here.

About Lantech

Lantech is known as the leader in stretch wrap technology and innovation, as well as case handling equipment. It has sales and manufacturing headquarters in Louisville, KY, sales and manufacturing facilities in The Netherlands, and sales and service operations in Australia and China. Annual gross sales exceed $130 million. Lantech employs approximately 475 associates. Visit for more information

About LEI

Lean Enterprise Institute Inc., is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Cambridge, MA, with a mission to make things better through lean thinking and practice. Founded in 1997 by management expert James P. Womack, PhD, LEI conducts research, teaches educational workshops, publishes books and ebooks, runs conferences, and shares practical information about lean thinking and practice. Visit for more information.

This post was published on July 12, 2017 and updated on October 2, 2017.

Topics: Lean Operations

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