Peter Bigelow

Getting lean and agile demands a rigid commitment.

Lean and flexible are states so many aspire toward, both personally and for their businesses. Yet  things don’t always end up as we hope.

As any athlete would attest, becoming lean and developing flexibility is anything but easy. Lean requires discipline. Flexibility requires focused effort, both mentally and physically. Neither happens overnight, but both require a change in lifestyle that occurs and continues over time – a long time!

All too often individuals will, with the best intentions, set out to personally become lean. They want to lose those extra pounds. They envision themselves thinner, with more energy and fitting into sizes they long ago abandoned. They plan an appropriate diet, and set up all the tools to ensure success will be achieved. Yet lean remains elusive, or slower than desired to achieve. What eventually leads many to giving up their goals is an inability to suppress the inevitable temptations they either did not consider or underestimated. The snack here, the forgot-to-follow-through there: It has a way of adding up until failure just “happens.”

Even more difficult is trying to develop flexibility. This is not simply trying to stop doing something, or altering a habit, like a diet. Developing anything requires taking proactive action – physical action – that soon morphs from being an interesting change of pace into an unpleasantly tiring and time-consuming ordeal. In the worst-case scenarios, the lean wannabie ends up an overweight couch potato, and flexibility hardens into a rigid “I tried it and it did not work” attitude.

The same seems to happen in business. Companies break out the marching band and, with great fanfare, launch a management directive to become a world-class “lean” organization or a nimble “flexible” best-of-bread company. Laudable objectives; great goals; regrettably too often, disappointing results!

Is there a way to determine the relative probability of success when embarking into the world of lean or flexible? I think so. As is the case when considering any self-help endeavor, some things stand out as motivators, roadblocks or opportunities.

First is need, the ultimate motivator. If a doctor says that you need to lose a hundred pounds or be dead in a couple months, you will be far more committed to changing than if that same doctor says at every annual physical that “you might want to shed a couple pounds.” The corollary situation in business is if or when your company needs to become lean – and fast – or you will lose money, run out of enough cash to operate, and therefore quickly face the disastrous result of filing bankruptcy. Facing sudden death is to a human as sudden bankruptcy is to a company. When you are at that point, it is amazing how serious and committed everyone becomes to stick to a change in behavior to ensure long-term survival. Equally amazing is how the “miracle” diet plans never produce the long-term desired results.

Second, you need to scan your operating environment for those roadblocks. If you want to personally become lean, you might not want to hang around people who spend all their free time eating deserts, fatty foods and care little for their diet. And you better clear the shelves of the tempting stuff that will most assuredly do in your efforts to improve your diet. In business, a organization can’t be lean if everyone is more focused on doing the same thing day in and day out, rather than stopping and (with an open mind) rethinking what they do and why they do it. The business status quo has a mighty velocity that is difficult to stop, change or redirect. If your personal or corporate culture rewards the status quo, change will be near impossible.

Finally, for those who want, but don’t need, to change and are in status quo or tradition-steeped operating environments, embrace the opportunities that require changing your planning approach, and adjust the desired time line for success, so you can take the extra steps to avoid failure.

The same can be said for the effort to be flexible and become more nimble. When there is a clear need, it is far easier to engage the necessary stakeholders. If the organization is perking along reasonably well, institutional roadblocks can be overwhelming obstacles to success. You can’t be a nimble organization if everyone sets their watches by the time meetings start – and finish. You can’t become flexible if any change in direction is shot down because “we don’t do things that way.” No one has ever become the lean and nimble “buff” specimen by doing the same old, same old!

While we all may want to be lean and flexible, the discipline and commitment to ongoing effort is underestimated and too often derails the effort. Discipline and effort, more often than not, is unglamorous, plain old hard work – hard work that requires dedication to stay the course. Like in our personal lives, the baggage each of us carries individually, such as wanting to sneak a snack or slack off when it is tough, grows exponentially in the business setting. As tough as it is individually to ignore the temptation of instant gratification, a corporation of employees looking for instant gratification becomes an immovable obstacle to the continuous dedication needed to achieve lean, flexible improvement.

No matter how much many try to become lean and flexible, what is really needed is dedicated, almost inflexible commitment and a more than hefty reservoir of effort to achieve the desired results. Yes, in business, as in everyday life, to become lean and flexible demands our being anything but!

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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