The fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives – Part 3: top-down and bottom-up

the-fallacy-of-bottom-up-lean-initiativesIn the first post of this series, I explained why bottom-up Lean initiatives have little chance to succeed. In the second post I switched the point of view and discussed the top-down driven Lean rollout attempts and their pitfalls. Neither is easy nor a sure way to succeed.

In this third post it is time to bring the conditions for success together.

Guidance comes from above

The system owners or top management are the sole legit to set the system’s / organization’s overall Goal. It is onto the ways(1) to achieve that Goal that all Lean initiatives must align. This is known as the “True North”.

Lean itself is not the Goal, it’s the preferred framework providing a way of thinking, principles, methods and a toolbox to efficiently achieve the Goal.

The Goal must be stated with clarity in order to avoid any misunderstanding and the Goal should be compelling for to motivate the stakeholders to play an active and motivated role in its achievement.

The worst Goal statement I was confronted with was “Survive another year”.

Stating the Goal alone is not enough. Top management should also set a limited set of top level indicators. In Bill Dettmer’s approach using the Goal Tree, those few top level indicators are called Critical Success Factors (CSFs). They are top management’s dashboard and ultimate steps before achieving the Goal.

Those CSFs must be set by top management for at least three reasons:

  1. It would be weird that anybody else defines the indicators by which top management monitors the progress towards the Goal it is responsible for achieving,
  2. Critical Success Factors are most often dictated by strategical analysis or benchmark, which are top management’s responsibility,
  3. Critical Success Factors constrain how the stakeholders will contribute to achieve the Goal. By this third reason I mean remaining consistent with the organization’s purpose, culture and values.

Once the Goal and Critical Success Factors are defined, enough guidance is provided from the top and it’s the subordinate level to take on and propose ways to achieve their goals, which are the CSF. The same will repeat with the next level and so on.

Lean-aware readers will recognize the cascading principle used in Policy Deployment, also known as Hoshin Kanri.

Appraisal comes from above too

If top management provided guidance, its role isn’t over yet. It is top management duty to make sure the whole organization works towards achieving the Goal and to remind and reinforce this guiding principle: working on anything else diverting resources from the achievement of the Goal is waste and is therefore invalid.

Remember, opportunities to improve are always infinite, while resources and time come in limited number. It is therefore mandatory to focus on leverage points and make wise use of limited resources.

I particularly like the Goal Tree because its logical structure lets no room for irrelevant nice-to-have that are immediately visible and their discarding rationally explained.

Enlightened management is about knowing what to do and what not do. And enlightenment can use a little help from a logical tool.

Without promoting the outdated command-and-control model, direction must be set top-down as well as the periodic checking of the organization’s right trajectory.

Constant attention is required over time in order to avoid any drift, deviant behaviors or loss of focus.

Help comes from above. Sometimes.

It’s still not enough to give direction and check the progress towards the Goal. Management’s top-down support is mandatory. By support I mean advice and backup when tough decisions need senior management to give input or take the decision, especially when those decisions lay beyond the field of authority of the lower ranking staff.

Support is also required when a settlement between conflicting objectives must be found.

From the Logical Thinking Process (Theory of Constraint) Body of Knowledge we know that conflict resolution should not seek a consensus (often disguised as “win-win” solution), but a way to “dissolve the conflict so that nobody has to give up anything except their beliefs in false assumptions.

Yet beware of drilling holes into the pyramid (2), meaning do not do what your subordinates have to do.

It is commonly accepted I hope, that leaders have to communicate the “what to change to” (the Goal) as well as the “why” of Lean transformation. It is up to the lower ranking staff in the organization to figure out “how to change”.

Achievement happens bottom-up

Since Policy Deployment or Hoshin Kanri are around, the cascading principle of top-down Goal setting and corresponding bottom-up answers is known.

Just as Hoshin Kanri, the Goal Tree uses the same principle: when the lower objectives are achieved, the corresponding upper objectives are achieved, and so on bottom-up till the top most objective (the Goal) is achieved.

Each layer of objectives is a set of Necessary Conditions for achieving the objective above. And here again, the Goal Tree provides the rational demonstration why employees can’t freely choose to work and improve whatever they want, even it seems an improvement from their point of view.

This disciplined approach may sound very constrained and limiting compared to other approaches asking staff for whatever improvement ideas. Maybe it sounds disappointingly controlled and restrictive but it makes no sense to burn limited and precious resources to “improve” whatever is proposed.

The lack of focus leads to many critics about lean lacking noticeable results compared to the time and money spent to improve. In this “open” approach stakeholders may have had their moment of glory when their proposed idea was validated, but their “improvements” didn’t impress nor last.


Neither bottom-up nor top-down initiated Lean journeys won’t lead to a Lean transformation success. The approach most likely to succeed is a smart mixture of top-down guidance, monitoring and assistance and aligned bottom-up contributions focusing on specific leverage points.

While top management provides the Goal to achieve and the framework within transforming the organization, the lower ranking staff make things happen working on meaningful and contributive topics.

Even if this approach looks constrained, it is more likely to demonstrate real improvement and proven, lasting benefits. Ultimately, this disciplined way should provide more satisfaction to all parties involved.

This ends the series of posts about the Fallacy of bottom-up Lean initiatives.

Comments welcome. If you liked it, share it!


(1) Theory of Constraints’ Thinking Processes would refer to these ways as “tactics”, while the Goal is a strategy
(2) An allusion about another one of my tales of the pyramid: the Swiss cheese

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