The Truth about Lean Failures

The truth is, most lean implementations are a failure over long duration. The reasons could be many. However, some of them are the major causes, as identified by the people involved in the implementation. They may be the right or maybe these are just the symptoms. We have to find the root cause in our own organisation.

I did a survey last week and here are some of the top reasons for lean failures as per the readers of this blog. Thanks to all who contributed their valuable time to answer the survey. It was very insightful.  You too can spare just a minute to answer the survey here.

Top Management

  • Does not walk the talk
  • Does not buy in
  • Does not support the process
  • They are not committed
  • Lacks the leadership qualities
  • Fears loss of power or resources


  • Mindset change for the people
  • What’s in it for me
  • Resistance to change
  • Lack of understanding
  • Engagement
  • Responsibility without  Authority
  • Change agents not talking in their language


  • Is related to the culture and top management
  • People Lack Skills for implementation
  • Project thinking and not embracing it as a lifestyle
  • Random  application of tools
  • Did not consider continuous learning as part of the process


Are they really the cause of failure?

Be careful do not jump to conclusions here. Failure and success are pit stops on the journey of continuous improvement.  So do not dwell on this too much. It is good to know the reason so that you can figure out ways to counteract it. Learn from failure and find a way to succeed.

When you think something was the cause of failure, dig deeper. Find the root cause. It may be something else. If you jump on the first thing that comes to your mind then there are chances that you may be on the wrong boat.

For Top Management, ask if you are just blaming them for your failure. If they are responsible then what was the cause. Were they educated on the benefits? Did you get a buy in? What qualities do they lack? How can you sell the idea to them?

For culture, is the whole group prepared for the big change?  What does your culture lack?  Do leaders respect and engage people at all level? Do people with responsibility given the authority to change? Do you see improvement activities as value or as cost?

For Sustainability, Is this just a temporary phase? Can you learn from this experience and make the changes stick the next time?

So What is the Truth?

Are you part of failed Lean implementation? Hey, do not worry. You are not alone. Almost all of us have been there. It is a part of the process.

There few failures before you succeed. Moreover, if you do not take effort to sustain there can be a failure after the big success. The success and failure come and go. We see companies as successful ones, when they have far more successes than failures. Even the big companies like Toyota have failed, but they did not stop there. The truth is only persistence matters. So take actions, fail fast to succeed fast.

Other truth is the way we think. We (mostly the western world) have the mindset of result-focused approach. Nothing wrong in having goals, but the problem lies in the means to achieve the goals (More about this here). Under traditional management, people who focus on the means are not always recognized. Like one of the person in survey said, “They promote the heroes- fire fighters …” These people achieve some incredible results, which are only short term and neither try to solve or prevent the issues from happening in the future

What is your Story?

People always want to hear about successes. However, there is lot to learn from failures too. I would love to hear your story about a failure. Were any of these reasons responsible? What did you do about it?

6 thoughts on “The Truth about Lean Failures”

  1. My perspective differs slightly Vivek. First of all it is interesting that none of the responders to your poll seem to say they were responsible for ‘a failure.’ The fingers all point elsewhere.

    The results also differ from our research and experience. When people do surveys rating the success of failure of any improvement program that has come and gone over the last 30 years it is quite common for 70% of the respondents to rate the initiative a failure.

    But what is the definition of failure? Usually the company did get better (somewhat) as a result of their activities. There are pockets of activities inside the organization that are better. However much of the gains they experience are difficult to completely sustain over time so some of the improvements do get lost.

    More importantly I think the definition of failure is “were my expectations met?” At the front-end when people rolled out a new improvement program (methodology) the expectations are high. Our cost will go down, our customers will love what we do, it will be a better place to work, our competitive position will improve, etc.

    If that is the definition then it is true, most improvement initiatives are ‘failures.’ But the definition is important to understand. Because when leaders and improvement coordinators lose sight of the things that did get better. A learning opportunity gets lost. They don’t investigate (and learn) why was the gain so hard to sustain? Why did our competitive position not change? And as a result when the next improvement program comes along the organization typically goes through exactly the same cycle.

    The interesting thing from a competitive perspective is fortunately most of an organization’s competitors are doing this in a very similar fashion. So they all get a little bit better, but alas nothing much changes from a competitive perspective. Because in fact relative to one another…nothing did change.

    Only a handful of organizations in any given industry really step up and excel. Those organizations do a better job of addressing the issues on your list, plus a few other items.

    I agree with Michel’s comment that mastery of the tools would also be a factor, but by itself that is not sufficient.

  2. Personally The reason you listed for Lean failures are valid, but the only true reason for failure is giving up. That only happens in businesses that are totally short-term minded, as Lean will often bring to the surface all the dirt that has een swept under the rug. When this happens in an actively traded company that focusses on keeping stock brokers and money managers happy they will just pull the rig out from under the effort.

    That is also why Lean often has its greatest successes in smaller companies that have a dominant ownership base that are focussed on growing their company.

  3. Hey Robert,
    I agree the smaller companies mostly find it easier to change and adapt. They have less of the politics and people tend to own their process. Of course this is not with all the small companies but few who are focussed

  4. Studies by two different organizations, Bain and the Manufacturing Performance Institute studied this issue just a few years ago. Their findings are summarized in the following synopsis.

    “Internal Teams Struggle to Deliver Substantial Improvements”

    Despite the growing popularity and impressive results some companies achieve through Lean, many internal teams often deliver only small, incremental improvements, not the significant, lasting, “double-digit” results companies expected when they initiated their lean programs.

    * “80 percent of companies are not achieving their expected value and 74 percent are not gaining the expected competitive advantage from their lean efforts,” reports Bain & Company’s survey of some of the world’s largest companies.

    * “Only 25 percent of executives report that their process improvements are providing a competitive edge.” (Bain)

    * “75 percent of manufacturers claim to be lean, but they are not getting the increased sales per employee nor are they realizing the cost per employee of truly lean operations,” reports the Manufacturing Performance Institute’s 2009–2010 Survey Results.

    Why Internal Teams May Not Achieve Significant Results

    * 20 percent or fewer of internal teams are focused on the right activities.

    * Lean-trained teams often see all problems as “a problem to solve”—they do not differentiate between big and small, nor do they prioritize and tackle the issues that have the greatest impact on the business.

    * Internal teams often have trouble breaking through their company’s functional silos to create truly major improvements.

    * Internal culture issues may prevent the internal team from achieving the substantial changes that lead to large, lasting improvements.

    * Internal team members are sidetracked by their “full-time jobs.”

  5. I would like to thank Jack for sharing those survey results though they are not really surprising to me, other that in some regards they are better than what I would have expected.

    The problem lies in with the competing demands in large organizations, from those enterprises that have done well in the last sevral years we can easily see that those with stable growth oriented ownership manage to sustain and build upon their success. Unfortunately most large businesses are owned by short-term minded funds looking for a fast return. The methods executives use to meet those short-term demands will never support a program or culture of sustainability.

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