10 Reasons Why Lean Manufacturing Transformations Fail


Manufacturers engage in Lean because of different situations: start-ups, turnaround situations, rapid growth, plateaus, restructuring, etc. Manufacturing organizations in each of these situations can certainly benefit from a Lean manufacturing transformation. However, if the decision to engage is based on the wrong reasons, efforts are doomed to fail.

A manufacturer that is in a mature state of their Lean transformation is usually preceded by mountains of hard work, a complete transformation is a hard feat to accomplish. When manufacturing leaders decide to pursue a Lean transformation, they often don’t know what to expect.

A 2007 study of manufacturers concluded that only 24% of Lean initiatives have accomplished significant results.

Even so, 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 a manufacturing 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 manufacturing 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 manufacturers. Please understand, these reasons are often interconnected, enablers of the others, and unfortunately the root cause of each other.

Without further ado, here are ten reasons why Lean manufacturing 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 forefront of every activity. However, they can provide support in several ways:
    1. Provide encouragement, and attend key related activities such as report outs and celebrations.
    2. Be visible and approachable by employees.
    3. Ensure employees understand the reason and importance of each activity.
    4. Make continuous improvement a priority for the organization.
    5. Use 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 rarely follow through. Other symptoms include fragmented application of principles over time, and in specific areas, where leaders have lower levels of commitment. If this ingredient is missing, there is very little chance.
  3. Too many initiatives: I have observed many manufacturers 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 comes along.

Girl in a jacket

  1. Risk-averse organization: In this case, it seems that some industries are more risk-averse than others. Often, this behavior is justified as 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 improve their jobs. Often, fear of failure is the root cause; in this environment, leaders should engage in educated risk to ensure progress.
  2. Hubris: I have personally witnessed leadership teams, especially when they have a level of success prior to Lean, display reckless disregard toward 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 whether you have the right people at the helm.
  3. Groupthink: This could be cultural or 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 manufacturing 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 the time or when they absolutely must. Lean manufacturing 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 reins. 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 manufacturers have the resources to hire employees to lead the organization through their journey; However, whether manufacturers have internal resources or not, they often need assistance. This could be because they have reached a plateau, or they don’t know where to go next. An outside perspective can often bring clarity to the path forward, and help get things back on track. Other times, manufacturers don’t recognize that they cannot do it alone. Some have a stigma against consultants that, in their leaders’ minds, justifies continuing to fail rather than seeking help. A consultant that fits your organization can help you advance your efforts quickly because they can guide you through the obstacles that you did not anticipate. Certainly, most organizations can benefit from an unbiased opinion.
  7. Panicking. Sometimes, manufacturers have enjoyed a level of success after initiating their efforts. Over time, it becomes embedded in the daily practices of the leaders. Or so it seems on the surface; however, when the going gets tough, is when leaders show what they are made of. In those situations, pay close attention: If leaders revert to the old ways, employees will see this as a sign of a lack of integrity, and begin to question their leaders.

As you can tell, most of these reasons are related to personnel issues as opposed to process. Application of the tools is usually not the problem; however, the senior leaders’ behaviors determine the success of the initiative. I encourage you to reflect on this list; and if you are guilty of any one of them, evaluate whether you should be pursuing “Lean manufacturing”. 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.

If you are serious about implementing Lean manufacturing and want to get the results that evade most manufacturers, schedule a time to discuss your situation and how we can help.

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