Guest Post: Reasons Lean May Fail

Joe Wilson has worked in a variety of continuous improvement, problem solving and engineering roles in manufacturing and distribution functions  in the automotive, electronics, and food/grocery industries. He was responsible for site leadership of Lean implementation during the launch and ramp up of becoming a supplier to Toyota and was able to work directly with their personnel and the Toyota Supplier Support Center.   His training background includes courses in Lean/TPS through TSSC and the University of Kentucky’s Lean Systems program.  He is a Six Sigma Black Belt and a Shainin Red X Journeyman in addition to training in Kepner-Tregoe problem solving techniques.  Joe also has a BS degree in Engineering Management from the University of Missouri-Rolla.

I have been a part of  a handful of conversations lately with people in what I’ll call “non-lean” organizations.  Because of my background, these folks will tell me about how they have a Lean position or Six Sigma position or they know of someone trained in the toolbox.  The common laments that I hear break down as either “We have this person, but I don’ t know what they do” or “This person has the training, but doesn’t seem to do anything with it.”  This is certainly not the first time I’ve heard these type of comments, but they have come with an alarming frequency lately.  Being a self-described Lean Thinker, I can’t help but begin to ask Why this seems to come up so often.  Not only that, but what does it mean in the big picture for Lean and/or Six Sigma as movements.

Why do people perceive this situation?

I guess there are a few reasons why people could see things this way.  One of the first possible reasons is that people in the organization don’t know or understand what is going on could be trying to avoid contact with the individual(s) or the initiative.  I’ve seen this happen for several reasons.  Sometimes it is out of fear of what the initiative is intending to do.   (Not wanting to get too close to the perceived ‘axe’.)  Others could ignore it out of a ‘Flavor of the Month’ cynicism.  I can understand both of these mindsets blocking the message or the messenger.

Another reason the perception exists could be a company/system failure.  Maybe it IS a Flavor of the Month or a side project and not a true commitment from the organization.  Maybe it’s a pilot program that isn’t ready for mass communication yet.  Maybe the organization just stinks at communicating and this is symptomatic of other issues.

A third, and by far the least comforting to me, option is that some of the people in these roles just aren’t the right people.  Sometimes these roles get filled by people looking to add some training or a job title to their resume.  Sometimes they get filled by people who had some available time or were expendable from their current roles.  Maybe they aren’t either of those and are truly interested, passionate people who are missing a trait that helps them be effective in their role (i.e. communication skills, technical aptitude, ability to teach others, ability to influence others to change, etc.).  These aren’t the easiest jobs to do and sometimes it is difficult to define exactly what traits you are looking for, especially for new initiatives.  Sometimes these gaps can be filled as an individual grows and develops, sometimes they can’t.

What do these problems mean?

Aside from the avoiders and willfully ignorant group in my first possible reason, the other two causes should be real concerns for those of us in the Lean community.  The more people are exposed to bad views of Lean, the harder it becomes to sell the good stuff.  (As a side note: I am distinguishing between Mark Graban’s LAME and just flat out poor execution of Lean here.)  The less people are willing to buy in to Lean because of previous bad experiences, the more entrenched people become in the ‘old way’ of doing things and the more trouble industry as a whole will have working to compete.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clean solution here.   We can do the best we can and hope that our good outweighs some others not so good.  Either way, I find myself much more interested lately in failed lean initiatives than successful ones.  Maybe there are as many lessons for all of us in places that it hasn’t worked as there are in Toyota’s (and other companies’) successes.

Posted on April 27, 2011, in Guest Post, Leadership and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I’m one of these persons who are trained but do little with it for my employer. I was recruited to assist in implementing a program but have pretty much given up. Why? Simple, my employer isn’t serious and I waste my time doing anything for areas not under my direct control as it is rarely sustained by the process owners and their managers.

    I keep my skills sharp by volunteering to help others who do not compete with my employer in any way.

  2. Nice post. I am a lean practitioner myself and agree with you – we should collect failed stories so that we can get an understanding of what not to do.

  3. Great post. I agree with you that as lean practitioner myself, it is interesting to learn also from failed initiatives.

    Keep in touch. My blog is


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