December 28

When Lean Fails – 12 Things to Avoid in Your Implementation


Depending on what you read, lean manufacturing fails most of the time. In fact, the failure rate can be more than 90%!

Your own chances of success are slim, so why not learn these common mistakes, so you don’t have to be just another statistic.

Why Lean Fails 1: Delegate to Someone Else

The number one problem most businesses have is that their managers want to delegate lean. “Lean’s good, so get on with it,” will not work in the long run.

Senior leaders in the business must take the initiative and realise that they must ‘do’ lean, BEFORE anyone else even attempts it. 

If they’re are seen to not get involved and merely delegate it all, people in the business will see it and will quickly lose interest.

They’re waiting to see what you do first. Depending on how you lead, this can go either two ways:

  1. You don’t get buy-in, because you’re not doing your bit.. OR
  2. You take the lead and show your commitment to the cause

By opting for step 1 and watching from the sidelines, you’ll be doing more than enough to ensure your lean programme becomes a flash in the pan. And that the energy for change soon becomes a distant memory.

Why Lean Fails 2: Copy Another Company’s Lean System into Your Business

Lean is not a plug-and-play system. It’s not as easy as simply copying another company’s lean system and pasted it into your business.

Lean is about observing your processes and using the concepts of each tool to drive improvements in your business.

Those that just blindly implement tools in view of it all coming together, will ensure that lean will hardly get going… Most importantly, it more than likely won’t last.

Here’s an example: I successfully implemented a process improvement management system, in a large company i worked with. 

When i joined a totally different business, i simply took everything i had and spent the first month implementing the system, like for like. I implemented the exact same:

  • Hourly reporting boards
  • Daily stand up meetings for team leaders
  • Leader standard work
  • Management daily meetings

The implementation was largely a non-success.

  • The hourly reporting boards weren’t used and deemed too hard to update because they didn’t fit the processes
  • The daily stand up meetings worked ok, but the layout of the boards and indeed, what we measured was not working as well as it could
  • No-one followed leader standard work, because they didn’t see the sense of the it
  • The management daily meeting just didn’t work. The KPIs weren’t discussed, and what should take 15 minutes, took 45 minutes to complete! After a month, they management team gave up.

What’s right is the concept of what we’re trying to do. The application has to be built from the ground up to match the business processes, and its culture.

This means allowing the teams to create their own versions of lean concepts and tools. It also means that you should focus on where things need to be fixed and using customised versions of these tools, rather than implementing an off-the-shelf blanket, site-wide implementation.

Failure to heed this advice and just copy a system that works somewhere else, is a sure-fire way to get your lean programme stuck… and pretty quickly. 

Why Lean Fails 3: Hold Too Many Around-the-Table Meetings

Want to kill productivity and morale fast? Have lots of long-winded meetings. 

They’re guaranteed to absorb time that could be spent on implementing lean and making positive change happen.

One of the main principles of lean is to “Go See.” This means to go to the workplace, where the processes are happening and observe.

Often, management have (for the right reasons) meetings to discuss:

  • Project updates
  • Discussions on the latest improvement ideas
  • How to fix a current customer problem
  • Customer feedback reviews
  • Daily progress meetings

And so on. 

Each meeting will slowly reduce the capacity each attendee has, to implement proactive process improvements.

To top things off, these meetings normally take a while to complete. some lasting 30 minutes, plus.

And if you add them up, a large chunk of a typical day is taken up just for meetings.

A lean system identifies the following:

  • Each meeting is clear in terms of goal, agenda and output
  • They’re held close to the place and process in question
  • They’re stand-up meetings, to promote efficient and fast meetings. No-one wants to stand around in meetings for too long (as opposed to sitting in comfy chairs for hours on end)
  • They are quick – no more than 15 minutes. That means no off-topic discussions. Just to-the-point updates and a chance to get organised

Meetings are good, as long as they are not a talking shop. Get to the point, hold them standing up, and take clear actions.

Traditional long, drawn out meetings are not conducive to lean. So keep them up if you want your lean project to last as long as a typical fad.

The other mantra of lean is to just do it. Don’t let perfection get in the way of improvement, as they say.

Under PDCA principles, if you have an idea, try it on a small scale. This means that talking solutions to death is not the lean thing to do – especially using a plethora of meetings as the vehicle for this..

Instead, identify an idea. Go and action it on a small scale and observe. Then adjust based on the results.

You can report back your findings at the next stand-up meeting. This will only take 20 seconds or so to say:

  • what you tried
  • whether it worked
  • the next action you’re going to take

Why Lean Fails 5: Lack of Strategic Clarity

Fancy implementing lean because it seems a good idea… Or you’re interested in it and want to see what it can do?

This is a great way for your lean efforts to end up on the scrapheap.

Lean is not something you can turn on like a gas pipe.

It is a complete system and mindset change.

It shouldn’t be seen as an addition to what you’re doing. The best lean transformations use lean because they strategically see its advantage. 

These companies know that it should be a part of everything that’s done across the business. It should be the culture.

The worst lean initiatives are those that see lean as an afterthought. 

I once worked for an MD that believed that this stuff was largely a load of fluff. He would ask to “turn this world-class manufacturing on, as we have a customer visit tomorrow.” Guess what happened to their lean programme?

It never got off first base.

Lean should be implemented into your corporate goals and objectives. And used everyday to achieve them.

For instance, How can you use it to:

  • Increase sales and market share
  • Improve customer satisfaction
  • Reduce lead time
  • Bring new products to market quicker
  • Improve employee engagement
  • Increase profitability

And so on.

Why Lean Fails 6: Lack of Patience

Some people want instant change. This is more so when companies are in trouble. 

They may be haemorrhaging profits… and struggling to break even.

And then they turn to lean.

As a result, they’re looking for instant fixes.

Although you can make improvements fast, a good lean programme ensures that it takes time to change the culture to a lean one.

This means spending the time to change people’s behaviours and habits that supports lean and continuous improvement.

In other words, getting people to do the “right” things, even when you’re not looking. This is when people adopt the new culture.

And if a company is in a mess, it’ll take time to correct many things, too. 

A business often takes a while to get into a mess and it’ll often take patience and time to get out of it…. and also to change those habits.

Why Lean Fails 7: Use a Scatter-gun Approach to Lean

Many people believe that lean is about putting in a shadow board; painting the walkway to easily see where things go; or making daily improvements to someone’s workstation to improve productivity.

Sure, this is a part of lean.

But they’re small improvements. And they’re scattered ones. By this, i mean, they’re not joined up. 

One person can improve the cleanliness of an area… and another might improve the workplace to shave 2 minutes processing time. And these are good.

But the real impact in lean, first and foremost, is to implement lean in a strategic and structured way.

This means:

  • Creating a vision and clear objectives of the lean transformation programme
  • Looking at the end-to-end value stream and improve it as a whole
  • Drive lean principles across the business in a strategic way
  • Then we drive daily continuous improvement

If you just rely on small daily improvements, you’ll risk burnout. Everyone’s making improvements, but the deep rooted problems are often still there… because no-one is looking at the bigger value stream perspective.

And to top things off, it’s harder to see the bigger gains being made.

I once saw a company that took pride in showing me all their daily improvements. There were small ideas being created by each operator – each driving small productivity improvements.

The problem was that they had far too much inventory, and were running out of room, and their lead times from order to delivery were far too long.

They missed the bigger picture and a more strategic, joined up approach to lean, first.

Why Lean Fails 8: Middle Management

The hard fact is that the 3 biggest barriers to change are:

  • Middle Management
  • Middle Management
  • Middle Management


Well the reason is that supervision and management play a critical part in driving lean improvements.

Often though, employees harbour a lot of frustration. This normally stems from two things:

  1. Frustrating processes that slows them down
  2. They’ve had ideas in the past, but nothing ever seems to get fixed

It’s these two things that can make or break your lean culture programme.

To be frank, they come from Management – middle management to be exact. 

As Managers are busy people, they find it hard (impossible, even) to be everywhere and fix everything. 

Businesses need good flow of communication and ideas. This comes from the top – down… and bottom-up approaches. The supervisory level in between is Middle Management.

They are the conduit for receiving information from their teams, and passing it on from above.

If you don’t create a platform for ideas to filter through this layer, both from top-down and bottom-up, the lean programme will fail.

Equally, if managers don’t empower employees to raise issues and make improvements, lean will fail.

A lot of effort must go into correcting this and installing the right framework to allow ideas and actions to flourish before implementing the lean tools.

In other words, supporting middle management to adopt lean but also open up communication and ideas from both top down and bottom up.

Why Lean Fails 10: Managers Don’t Think About Culture

Implementing a lean programme that stands the test of time, relies on one thing: Culture.

When implementing lean, 90% of the focus should go into changing people’s behaviours… and 10% of the time on implementing the lean tools.

This means leading change. There’s a simple but effective tool to help identify some of the things  you need to do to lead change. It’s called ADKAR. It stands for:

  • Awareness – Provide the awareness to change and what it means to each individual
  • Desire – communicate with them, so they can eventually build the desire to change
  • Knowledge – Give them the knowledge as to what it means in this new way of working, and how each person fits within it
  • Ability – Give them the skills to work in the new way
  • Reinforce – Reward and praise people when they do the right things

You can see that this involves a step-by-step process of leading people along the lean journey. It’s far from a case of just implementing lean tools, or doing it when you have time.

Failing to treat lean as a fully fledged change programme, will more than likely result in a flash-in-the-pan project.

Why Lean Fails 11: Only Think About Output

If the mindset is to keep the machines running at all costs, then it’s hard to invest the time to fix your systems and embed lean.

The same is true for all areas of the business, from:

  • Not enough time in management to lead teams
  • Too many sales to make, to worry about processes
  • Too much fire fighting to do fix anything for good

You get the picture.

The point is, lean is hard. If you’re serious and want it to be a strategic framework in your business, then doing the extra actions required, are not optional.

To start with, you’ll expect that your teams will have to hit their targets AND implement lean. 

This means longer days, more work and juggling to do it all…. whilst you’re getting lean going.

It gets easier as lean starts to stick, but to start with, it’s tough. If yo’re not prepared to think about lean AND also output in the same breath, then you’ll get nowhere fast.

Why Lean Fails 12: Don’t Complete Actions

If your current culture is notoriously terrible and holding people accountable and closing actions, then lean will be extra hard.

You’ll find that there may well be an initial buzz for getting started. Actions will be created…. and then after a few weeks, the same habits kick in. 

People are too busy. They’re not as committed as before, and what’s beginning to take shape is a list of actions that are way passed their due-by date.

Lack of completion of targets is a number 1 killer of every lean programme.

If you can’t ensure that your teams take actions and complete them…And you don’t want to hold people accountable to get things done, then lean is not for you.

I’ve literally seen many companies that start with enthusiasm, but as quickly as they built their motivation, they lose it and slip back to type. Important lean implementation actions slip and this snowballs into more and more actions missed.

Before you know it, all things are back to square one.

Getting people in a state of mind whereby they take ownership, complete actions and then discuss them together, is a major foundation of lean.

It needs to be consciously pushed and maintained until people get used to it.

I know it feels awkward to many people but having the unwillingness to accept that actions are not completed when promised, and developign this mindset across the business, is imperative to success.


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How to Begin Your Lean Journey: 5 Steps to Making an Impact

5 Reasons Why Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing Is Important

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