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Why Lean Fails

Why do so many organizations give up on lean even after experiencing initial success with the effort? There are several examples of companies in various industries that experienced sustained success with lean, but these examples seem to be few and far between when compared to the large number of companies that attempt it and fail.

To be clear, lean doesn’t fail . . . it’s the transformation that fails. While there are many reasons for the failure, there are a few that seem to be common across various organizations. Regardless of which one or more of these reasons apply, correcting them is possible only when leaders begin to develop a deep understanding of lean and realize that the responsibility for the transformation rests squarely on their shoulders rather than something that can be delegated to lower levels in the organization.

Although the premise of lean is simple, integrating it into an organization is highly complex, and the larger the organization the more complex it becomes. Lean thinking is a system that requires understanding how the elements come together to drive continual improvement in support of the organization’s aim. The big gains that some organizations have been able to achieve with lean are only possible after fundamentally transforming the way people think, lead, and approach problems.

The list below is far from comprehensive but is meant to stimulate thinking and reflection to understand the reasons for failure and to help move toward fundamentally changing the culture to enable it to increase and sustain the rate of improvement.

  1. Fail to understand the level of transformation required: Far too often, organizations attempt to lay lean on top of a traditional leadership system and expect things the change. It is a simple fact that nothing will change unless the leadership system changes, and failing to understand this will lead to frustration and disappointment in the effort. This is often the main reason behind what appears to be a lack of commitment by the organization’s leaders. People cannot commit to something they do not understand.
  2. Focus on the home runs: Far too many people read about the Toyota and its rise from virtual ashes in the 1940s to become the most successful automaker in terms of sales, profit, and market capitalization. When reading an article about it or hearing someone tell the Toyota story, however, misses the point that it was the decades of small, continual improvements that led to significant step changes in performance. Although there are many examples of large innovative improvements at Toyota and other lean thinking companies, they happen because of the collective change in thinking that occurs through a focus on small continual improvements and daily problem-solving.
  3. Focusing on financial benefits only: After experiencing a few early improvements, it is very common for leaders to become focused on the financial benefits of the effort and change their focus from learning to cost savings. When this happens, lean becomes a set of tools rather than a system of continual improvement. SQDC (safety-quality-delivery-cost) is replaced by C, and understanding the true meaning of improvement is lost. As small improvements and learning is virtually ignored and the big improvements (the home runs mentioned above) are celebrated, people will do what it takes to show big gains, whether real or fabricated, and any early success with lean will break down and die.
  4. Focus on the tools rather than the thinking: Without a deep understanding of lean as a system and the fundamental reasons for its success, it is not possible to think beyond the tools. The tools are easy to understand while the theory behind lean is not. Leaders, especially in the west, are much more interested in things that are concrete, practical, provide quick results, and are easy to explain than organizational theory, psychology, learning, and systems thinking.
  5. Lack of systems thinking: Unless leaders understand the complexity of the organization’s system, including how the subsystems work together to drive performance, people and teams will continually compete with one other resulting in continual performance problems and increasing sub-optimization. One of the most critical responsibilities of leaders is to create and continually improve the organization’s system to enable it to achieve its purpose. This includes helping everyone understand clearly how the work they do supports the achievement of organizational objectives.
  6. Lack of patience: If you are looking for quick results, lean is probably not the way to do it. As mentioned above, lean requires a shift in the way people think, lead, and perform work, and it takes time – a lot of time – to make it happen. Although results will be seen along the way, there will be gaps that make it seem like nothing is happening. W. Edwards Deming once said that transformation is discontinuous, so it is important to understand that there will be many instances of two steps forward and one step back. The key is to stick with it and remain constant in the purpose and the transformation.

When any of the above characteristics are present, people who are against lean will gain ammunition to bury the effort. It is very easy for the people who feel threatened by lean to plant seeds of doubt in those who are on-board with the change. Getting past this initial stage of the transformation requires regular reflection and continual learning by leaders to see the signs and address them as they happen.

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.


One thought on “Why Lean Fails

  1. I’d say in my experience, 1 through 4 are almost a root cause of 5. When the tools don’t work ( because we copy them instead of copying the thinking), when the cost savings don’t continue (because of short term thinking), when the business metrics stop moving, and when “lean transformation metrics” leave an impression of middle management going AWOL–patience is lost and usually fast.

    Systems thinking or lack thereof I think can be exacerbated by organizational structures and cultures that promote functional excellence. I’ve seen and experienced where a given functional group in an organization (supply chain, safety, engineering, maintenance) ends up dominating the business to the point where everything revolves around it. I’ve also seen this change from year to year. I’ve experienced this phenomenon to such a degree that the ethos of the functional group becomes obnoxious (because they win all the company excellence awards) and most of the people in it are primadonnas. In an organization like this where functional groups are jostling for organizational primacy, lean transformation efforts get murky as the focus is on the functional group and not the whole stream of value.

    It is of critical importance that top leaders recognize this issue and stamp it down. With an overemphasis on functional excellence, there is much waste developed. One group is making up its own rules and standards that everyone else must follow. Then another does the same. And another. The waste is tremendous as achieving business objectives becomes intertwined with reaching functional excellence goals.

    What good is it to have the finest, award winning supply chain, if the cost of doing so is an operation that misses performance targets by wide and embarrassing margins? The domestic auto industry figured this out (and are still learning this). It does the customer no good at all to have the finest head gaskets if the wheels fall off and the headlights are glitchy.


    Posted by Kyle | December 19, 2017, 8:41 am

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