Why Lean Fails So Often

When something fails over 90% of the time, it’s usually tossed to the curb. Lean implementations fail at least that often. Why do they fail so often, and why do companies keep trying?

The keep trying part is easy: stories of great results and desperation to try almost anything to become more competitive. It’s the “almost” part that causes the collapse.

Let’s start with the most visible causes of failure. The technical ones. Lean is a thinking system that includes tools, not a system of tools. When leadership doesn’t understand this basic fact, there’s a low ceiling on improvement.

Slapping tools on a factory without specific just-in-time purpose that matters to employees, and on top of whatever is already in place, won’t work. Yet, it’s a common form of “lean implementation.” That effort is typically led by someone who fails to realize that Toyota designed tools to meet its needs, not anyone else’s, and that tools are a means to an end and not an end. Copy-paste isn’t a good approach, especially when you don’t understand what you’re copying.

A second cause of lean disintegration is managerial. Lean is unlikely to fit well into current management systems, yet management rarely thinks its processes need to change. When conversation is about “who” and a culture of blame instead of on process, lean is absent. Additionally, problem solving can require new skills and time to get to root cause. The same managers that fail to provide that support are the ones expressing frustration at repeat problems. Band-Aids make a simple system complex and do not drive problems from the business.

The third source of lean failures is philosophical. When people are viewed as an expense, there will be trouble. When the numbers are more important than learning, there will be trouble. When leadership says “we want to do lean” instead of “we want to become lean” it rarely understands the pervasive nature of organizational change required.

While I have seen all these causes of lean failures, one of the most common factors limiting success is the philosophical wall of “the company is the owner’s asset.” While legally true, that perception limits the commitment of every other stakeholder. This usually appears as lean is at risk when management changes.

So why does lean fail so often?

Because it’s not nearly as simple as it seems. Successful lean implementations require significant and pervasive change throughout most organizations with constant reinforcement of the behavioral adjustments. It is not a silver bullet, nor is it quick. Like weight control and smoking cessation, people start with good intentions. Some make immediate and noticeable changes. But its much more difficult to make the changes stick for life.

I encourage you to look at every slippage in your conversion to becoming lean as an opportunity to learn and grow. Slow progress is still progress. It’s only failure if you quit learning and return to what you were comfortable with before all this started.

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2 thoughts on “Why Lean Fails So Often

  1. The image I get in my mind when I think of “Lean” is that of a body builder: someone who first sheds excess weight through thoughtful and uncomfortable work, then focuses on enhancing the quality and function of the assets that remain. I am just beginning to learn about lean management and look forward to reading more of Becky’s pieces.

    How do we know lean implementation fails over 90% of the time?

    • How do we know about the failure rate of Lean?
      — My 26+ years experience and observation in consulting
      — The same observations by others experienced in this field
      — Survey results (which I think are questionable, because of the bias inherently in them)

      You won’t find statistically validated numbers, but you’ll find little that suggests I’m wrong on this!

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