Numerous articles have been written about the current status of Lean not only in manufacturing, but its applicability in all arenas of work. They typically revolve around quick win success stories related to the implementation of Lean tools and techniques and the general thinking is that when it fails, it is due to poor management. Most would agree that without a Lean transformation being sponsored and endorsed by top leadership it would be difficult to achieve sustainable positive results. However, although top leadership sponsorship is important the primary reasons behind the failures are not always what they appear to be.

FTE’s Experience

Through dozens of engagements with companies that have attempted to implement Lean principles, in some cases with two, three or more failed attempts, we often discover underlying issues that set these companies up for failure before they even get started. As we progress deeper into our “Archeological Dig” we invariably discover long lost evidence of Lean tools, and typically hear comments such as “we used to have that, but we don’t anymore”. As we explore further and dig deeper we are universally led back to three common themes.

Theme #1: Lack of discipline to follow fundamental business systems

Fundamental business systems and processes are the bedrock of all world-class organizations and the discipline to follow them is the religion that drives sustainable high performance. Without well-documented business systems it is virtually impossible to train and hold employees accountable to their actions and chaos is the result. The chaos takes the form of well-intended employees at all levels of the organization independently deciding the best way to get their job done. While this may seem like positive behavior, one might consider their daily commute without traffic control standards such as stop lights, stop signs, speed limits, or if they differed completely from town to town. Would their commute be easier, harder, take longer or less time, and would it be a safe environment to travel in?

Lean principles require discipline, and in a chaotic environment attempting to implement any aspect of Lean is destined for failure. Actually in our observations, the typical result is backsliding of performance as the employees become even more frustrated and eventually lose hope. Often we hear “we tried 5-S, standardized work, etc.  and it didn’t work out”.

Theme #2: Lack of aligned leadership led activities

Lean cannot be delegated.  It impacts every aspect of the business and every level of the organization. As such, it must be understood at all levels but all too often senior management tells us that they did a search, found a Lean expert, hired them, and assigned them to a middle management role. Then they wonder why the results were limited. The reason is simple; senior leadership did not place a priority on understanding the principles or recognize that for a Lean transformation to be successful, they must take an active role in the implementation and the subsequent sustainment. Lean is like a finely tuned racecar. It is capable of producing exceptional results when it is performing as designed, but without active and real time maintenance it is destined for pit row.

Leaders must not only be active in personally supporting the effort but they must also become teachers. The teaching process is where the deep understanding of the principles and concepts come to life. It is also through this process that they become capable of discerning correct and incorrect application of Lean principles in their work place and can leverage those opportunities as “teaching moments” with their teams.

Theme #3: Confirmation and Feedback:

While fundamental business systems and leader-led transformation are key ingredients, on their own they are not enough for a successful Lean transformation.  Ensuring discipline to the processes with real time confirmation is the glue that holds it all together.  Deep seated knowledge, consistent use of the proper tools and techniques; the empowerment to act at all levels of the organization and real time confirmation and feedback is paramount.


FTE believes in a fully integrated approach to a successful business transformation as illustrated by the following graphic. Sustainable results are in direct relation to the degree to which all aspects are fully evolved.

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