Can You Avoid Lean Failure?

Pied Piper with Children

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[tweetmeme] A reader asked a great question in response to a recent Lean Leadership Blog post at the Consumer Goods Club.  His question was in essence how do you keep Lean initiatives moving ahead and not going the way of another flavor of the month program.  We have all seen managers with the best intentions launch new initiatives that were supposed to be the wave of the future only to see them fizzle out after a few weeks or months.  Lean initiatives are no different.  Many organizations have tried Lean and either abandon it completely or don’t take it very far.  So what makes the difference between companies that tried Lean and those that are leading the pack?

A successful launch of Lean is in some respects like getting lean with one’s weight.  There are no quick fixes.  There are no easy solutions and it takes work.  You cannot make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight then go back to your old habits after a few weeks or months and expect to stay Lean. It takes discipline over the long haul.

Successful Lean organizations will have several characteristics:

  • First and foremost, organizations embarking on a Lean transformation must have someone who is passionately committed to the process and can keep others on board. According to Industry Week Magazine, 70% of all organizational change initiatives fail because there is a lack of lasting commitment.  With this in mind, the higher in the organization this committed leader is, the better.  This Lean leader must be someone who has the authority to set direction for the long-term.
  • There also needs to be accountability up and down the chain of command.  Lean will need to bring results if it is to survive.  I doubt it will work if it’s not part of everyone’s annual goals and bonuses.  Your company needs a way to keep Lean on the radar.
  • Thirdly, these organizations need to have a core group that truly thinks Lean.  This group can be developed over time while on the Lean journey.  Lean is a way of thinking and not just a box of tools.  The journey is more than learning the tools.  It is a culture change.  Your organization will fall into the Lean toolbox mentality without a core group of people who can keep reminding everyone that it’s a process.
  • Successful Lean organizations have a culture of employee engagement. This culture will need to be quickly cultivated if it is not already there.  The average line operator will need to see how Lean benefits them.
  • Finally, there needs to be structure to facilitate and support the process.

This has certainly been an important topic in recent years and is very relevant today.  You can find many references to what causes Lean to fail and what is required for success.  There are many discussions in several LinkedIn groups, blogs, and books documenting successful Lean organizations.  The successful organizations are the ones who are willing to invest for the long-term.  Which describes your organization?  Does your team keep an eye on the long-term goals even when dealing with today’s issues or do they drop everything for the weekly or even daily crisis?  Is your organization ready for Lean?

Best regards,

Chris Paulsen
Lean Leadership Blog
Written for


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About Christian Paulsen

Christian Paulsen is an Executive Consultant with 20 years of Lean Manufacturing. Chris adds value to organizations by driving process improvement and bottom line savings. Chris intends to help others by sharing the lessons learned after a quarter century of operational leadership, marriage, parenting, and even longer as a Cubs fan. Your comments on this blog are welcome. You can also connect with Chris via LinnkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook in the right sidebar. Chris welcomes your comments. Christian's professional services are available by contacting him through LinkedIn (right side bar)
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6 Responses to Can You Avoid Lean Failure?

  1. Mark Welch says:

    Nice post, Christian. Have you ever read, “How to Prevent Lean Implementation Failures; 10 Reasons Why Failures Occur” by Larry Rubrich? It makes some similar points.

  2. Matt Wrye says:

    I agree, Christian. All of those components are needed. The components make sense and seem like they would be easy to have but they aren’t easy. It takes a lot of work. Once enough results are shown the ball will continue to roll with less effort. The amount of results needed to show the benefits varies in portion to the size of the organization usually. The bigger the organization the more results that will be needed.

    • Hi Matt,

      You are right. Many of the keys to successful leadership sound easy when reading a blog or when on the outside looking in. It’s much tougher to implement with all of the distractions and hurdles that are realities in the arena. I recall a time when a friend of mine moved from a support role to one of direct supervision and management of an operational department. He admitted how much harder it was when he was the one who had to make it happen. It makes me think of that Teddy Roosevelt quote: “It is not the critic who counts….”

      Thanks for sharing,

  3. Redge says:

    Great post Christian! Leadership must not only endorse but must be engaged in the process. I agree that lean is a way of thinking but even more, the very principled thinking is driven by the vision of the company.

    Lean requires more than just a commitment, it must be a practice that is evidenced at all levels of the organization. As those who follow Toyota already know, every one at all levels of the company are both mentors and students of the Toyota Way and the philosophy upon which the company was built. What we call lean follows from this.

    In many organizations, initiatives are often deferred to an existing or newly created “department” or authority figure. If the initiative fails, the leadership somehow displaces accountability for the failure to the very “department” they helped to create or put in charge. The department is re-organized and the initiative is either replaced or abandoned.

    Governments are notorious for this type of behavior, however, their venues and initiatives are held to a different process of accountability, namely, known as elections.

    I have observed many companies that have all but abandoned lean initiatives as evidenced by the many empty desks, outdated charts, and action plans posted on the walls. Rather than integrating lean into the existing culture, they implemented lean as an “add on”, creating positions and committees that operated externally to the very functions they were intended to support.

    Toyota exemplifies what it means to create and sustain a culture that drives all else within the company. Toyota’s culture continues to reflect the principles upon which the company was founded and its resilience, ability to adapt, and improve is a testament to this philosophy.

    Too many companies have taken a narrow view of lean (absent the culture) and are frustrated by the lack of results. Clearly, Toyota is driven by a greater vision that extends well beyond the methods of lean. Perhaps this is the missing link.

  4. Redge,

    Excellent insight. Changing the culture is key. Thanks for your comments.


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