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business, improvement, leadership, lean, lean thinking, management, tps, transformation, Uncategorized

When Lean Fails

Many companies today are jumping on the lean bandwagon and expecting huge cost reductions as a result.  Unfortunately, many of these companies will never see the type of improvements they expect from lean, and their leaders will likely become disappointed and frustrated, and eventually abandon the effort.

There are a number of reasons companies fail with lean.  What I present here are the causes I’ve seen over the years that are the most destructive and the most difficult to resolve.  It is important to understand these causes and work to prevent or address them early in the process in order to initiate the type of transformation that will lead to a more competitive and stronger organization in the long run.

  • Underestimating the Transformation
    Most leaders tend to underestimate the level of transformation required to create a lean thinking culture within the organization. Lean is not something you “implement” or use when convenient.  In virtually all cases, it involves a dramatic shift in the culture to drive a new way of thinking and approaching work.  As such, it requires transformation in the systems for leadership, training and development, recruiting and hiring, promotions, and others before one can expect to see results that have any chance of being sustainable.
  • Delegating the Effort
    One of the major differences between lean and improvement methodologies like six-sigma is that it requires the involvement of the organization’s leaders to be successful. As noted above, lean requires a fairly significant transformation in order to be successful and this can only be done by those at the top because they are the people who are in the position to make it happen.
  • Humility
    Arrogance is one of the biggest killers of a lean culture. Built on the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, lean is about continual learning.  I have seen many organizations over the years that had started well with the effort but, after a few early successes, became overly confident and killed the transformation.  The saying that the man who is too big to learn will get no bigger applies to organizations as well as individuals.

    The most effective leaders I have worked with are those who accept responsibility for the organization’s problems and realize that it is they who need to change in order for the organization to change.

  • Patience
    The extent of change in systems and behaviors required to be successful with lean takes time to achieve. Although there will undoubtedly be early successes, the ability to sustain the successes and drive others will not happen without continual effort to shift thinking.  Especially when a crisis occurs, people will go back to their comfort zone, which most likely involves how they behaved before learning about lean.

    The key is to never let up by continuing to reflect and drive change through the conversations and actions that occur every day.

  • Consistency
    Lean requires clear alignment from the organization’s purpose to the work performed by people every day. In order to achieve and maintain this alignment, the organization must have a clear and constant purpose that is motivating and well understood by everyone.  Doing this well requires a significant amount of effort by the leadership team – especially during bad times when many organizations find it easier to abandon the purpose in order to maintain profits and short-term goals.

Leaders must be enlightened enough to understand that, although success will not come easy, it is possible to transform the company into a stronger and more successful organization.  Looking out for the causes of failure can save a lot of frustration early in the process and greatly improve the chances for success.

About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.


3 thoughts on “When Lean Fails

  1. Great post. What methods have you seen succeed for helping leaders understand and embrace their role in Lean Transformation? At this point in my journey, I’ve seen early career training in Lean which kicks in once the employee becomes a leader (my own experience) or importing leaders from established Lean cultures. Any suggestions for engaging established leadership? Forgive me if you’ve already answered this elsewhere. I’m still working through the archive.


    Posted by jd1ven | January 8, 2017, 3:58 pm
    • Thanks Justice. It’s a fairly complex question . . . and one that doesn’t really have a single answer. Many years ago, I asked Dr. Deming a similar question and he told me that if I understood what needed to be done and my company’s leaders did not listen, then it’s on me. He also said that it’s my responsibility to learn from every interaction and adjust my approach, words, etc. to make them listen.

      I’ve thought about that for years and, although I’ve learn to tailor my approach based on who I’m working with, there are some general things I focus on: (1) building a relationship with those I’m working with because they won’t listen if they don’t respect what I’m saying, and won’t respect what I’m saying if I don’t spend enough time with them to build a relationship; (2) show them how lean connects the vision to the work performed every day. They’ve got to get past the idea that lean is the same as 6-sigma, meaning it’s not just a set of tools to drive random improvement projects. Lean thinking helps leaders make the vision a reality, and if I have built a good relationship with those leading (from step 1), I can demonstrate gaps between the vision and long-term objectives with day-to-day activities; (3) roll up my sleeves and help create areas in the company where I can demonstrate how lean really works (sort of a “model line” approach). Find a willing candidate and help him or her develop dashboards, create a one-year plan, set up an effective meeting rhythm, and address problems on a daily basis.

      I hope this helps . . . sounds like an idea for a future blog. Thanks for the comments.


      Posted by Gregg Stocker | January 10, 2017, 2:54 am
      • Gregg, thank you for sharing your and Dr. Deming’s insights. Would love to see a post on this topic in the future but you’ve given me plenty to take action with in the mean time. I think Dr. BJ Fogg has said that the one of the best ways to influence people is to help them do what they already want to do. Makes sense even if it is difficult to practice.


        Posted by jd1ven | January 11, 2017, 10:22 pm

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