Companies engage in Lean because of different situations: start-ups, turnaround situations, rapid growth, plateaus, restructuring, etc. Organizations in each of these situations can certainly benefit from a Lean transformation. However, when the reasons behind the decision to engage are the wrong ones is when these efforts are doomed to fail.

An organization that is in a mature state of their Lean transformation is usually preceded by mountains of hard work as this is one hard feat to accomplish. When business leaders decide to pursue a Lean transformation they often don’t know what to expect.

A 2007 study concluded that only 24% of Lean initiatives have accomplished significant results. Even though, a 2007 census showed that nearly 70% of all manufacturing plants in the U.S. were employing Lean Manufacturing as an improvement methodology. Furthermore, only 2% of the respondents had fully achieved their objectives. The reality is, that the odds are stacked against an organization pursuing this lofty goal. A lot of things must come together in order to be successful.

In this blog I will provide a list of reasons that leaders should consider and often are the root cause of failure for these initiatives. These do not cover every possible scenario. However, they provide some common reasons I have observed in my work over the years with many clients. Please understand, these reasons are often interconnected, enablers of the others, and unfortunately the root cause of each other.

Without further a due, here are ten reasons why Lean transformations fail:

  1. Senior leadership support: Very often I observe that the main drivers of bringing continuous improvement to the organization are in the middle ranks or in the minority at the senior level. When you observe that the senior leaders are not providing support as a united front, something is wrong. Senior leaders don’t need to be at the fore front of every activity. However, they can provide support in several ways:
    1. Attending key related activities such as report outs, celebrations and providing encouragement.
    2. Being visible and approachable by employees.
    3. Ensuring employees understand the reason and importance of each activity.
    4. Making continuous improvement a priority for the organization.
    5. Using their authority or resources to remove obstacles from employees looking to make improvements.
  2. Commitment from the organization: This is often observed when organizations kick off an initiative but there is no follow through. Other symptoms are that the application of the principles is normally fragmented over time and in specific areas where those leaders have higher levels of commitment. If this ingredient is missing, there is very little chance.
  3. Too many initiatives: I have observed many companies that pursue excessive amounts of initiatives concurrently. They fail to recognize that the organization can only take so much change. When leaders don’t provide the necessary focus to each initiative, they sacrifice their credibility with their employees. Cynicism is created, and employees begin to see each effort as a fad that they just need to endure until the next one.

Please download our Infographic – Traditional Leader vs Lean Leader to understand the type of leader needed to better prepare your organization for adopting the Lean principles.

  1. Risk adverse organization: In this case, it seems that some industries are more risk adverse than others. Often this behavior is justified as, among others, regulatory, health, safety, and environmental concerns are valid. Other times, some organizations are very restrictive with how much change they allow to happen. This clearly stifles employee engagement and sends a message that the leadership does not trust their people to make their jobs better. Often, fear of failure is the root cause; in this environment leaders should engage in educated risk to make progress.
  2. Hubris: I have personally witnessed leadership teams, especially when they have a level of success prior to lean, display reckless disregard to focusing on improving. These leaders display behaviors that send messages, such as: Thinking of Lean as being beneath them. “Lean is not something we need”, “we are successful already”, “Why change”, “Not for our industry”, or “We don’t make cars or widgets.” I would question if you have the right people at the helm.
  3. Groupthink: Could be cultural, industry related but when a leadership team has been working together for some time groupthink may develop. The challenge here is that these leaders convince themselves of something and there are few things that will change their minds; unfortunately, this often comes too late and after paying a hefty price with the workforce and their customers.
  4. Lack of understanding: Senior leaders often develop the misperception that Lean is a series of projects to make randomized improvements. The organization often becomes obsessed with the application of the tools with no aim. They only focus on improving when they have time or when they absolutely must. Lean should be adopted as a management system. As opposed to a project and should be tied to business goals. If employees can’t put these two together, leaders risk creating resistance and lack of buy in.
  5. Lack of leadership: Often organizations have good leaders, but no one takes the reigns. Leaders are afraid or just fail to address undesirable behavior. They fail to engage their employees. Fail to build a team that cascades the vision to the rest of the organization. Tolerate having the wrong people in the wrong seats due to competency or character. All these symptoms lead to a failure to get the team to rally around the initiative.
  6. Don’t know when to or refuse to ask for help. Many organizations have the resources to hire employees to lead the organization through their journey; However, whether organizations have internal resources or not, they often need assistance. Could be because they have reached a plateau, or they don’t know where to go next. An outside perspective often can bring clarity to the path forward and help get things back on track. Other times, organizations don’t recognize they can’t do it alone. Some have a stigma against consultants that, in their leaders’ minds, justifies continuing to fail rather than get help. A consultant that fits your organization can help you advance your efforts quickly because they can guide you through the things you did not anticipate. Certainly, most organizations can benefit from an unbiased opinion.
  7. Panicking. Sometimes organizations have enjoyed a level of success after initiating their efforts. Over time it becomes embedded in the daily practices of the leaders. So it seems, on the surface, but when the going gets tough is when leaders show what they are made off. In those situations, watch: If leaders revert to the old ways, employees will see this as a sign of lack of integrity and begin to question their leaders.

As you can tell most of these reasons are related to people issues as opposed to process. Application of the tools is usually not the problem; but the senior leaders’ behaviors determine the success of the initiative. I encourage you to reflect on this list; and if you are guilty of anyone of them, evaluate if you should be pursuing Lean. I say this, because continuing down a path that will lead to a lot of wasted efforts and discouraged people hopefully is something you can avoid. On the other hand, if you are committed to changing and would like assistance please contact us to discuss your specific needs.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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