I came across this article titled “Top 5 Reasons Lean Projects Fail” and thought I would jot down my own list of 8 big reasons for lean failure:

  1. Let’s start with his article – viewing lean as a collection of projects.  Too many companies think lean is all about doing business as usual, but adding in a bunch of kaizen events.  In that mode the events/projects rarely generate significant, sustainable results.
  2. Buying lean – My post the other day on La Z Boy is a prime example … “The firm has made a $400,000 investment to introduce a 90-point lean manufacturing programme.”  I can’t imagine what anyone can spend $400,000 on that would make them lean.  Software and technology will not make anyone lean, and even the most outrageous consultant I know doesn’t charge $400,000 to anyone for all out training and advice.
  3. Limiting lean to tools – the most common failure by far.  Most companies see lean as a collection of shop floor tools, techniques and parlor tricks and do not even contemplate changing anything on the management side of the business.  Unfortunately you get what you manage … manage the business the same way and you will get the same results.  Change management and you get different results.  It’s really that simple.
  4. Improving processes that are (a) not really processes at all or (b) should be eliminated instead of optimized.  In the first case, it is pretty common to see people defining a series of activities in the middle of an end to end process, then calling it improved when all they have done is shoved the waste up or down the process.  In the second case it is fairly common to see folks improving material handling or quality inspection when they should be working on getting rid of it, or looking at ways to reduce the cost of handling paper work or conducting meetings instead of asking why enough times to realize the paperwork or the meeting shouldn’t be there at all.
  5. Cafeteria lean – this happens all the time … ignoring respect for people because it is too mysterious or too hard, and latching onto 5S because it is easy.  Lean is an integrated, comprehensive approach to running the business – an all or none proposition.  You can’t pick and choose a few lean concepts you like and ignore the ones you don’t understand, are too difficult or that make you uncomfortable.
  6. Missing true north – this is where accounting comes in.  More often than not ‘improvement’ is defined as reducing direct labor cost and headcount missing the fundamental point entirely.  I mean, if lean is about eliminating waste and waste is defined as anything that does not add value for customers, how can the metric – the primary goal – be reducing the folks who add value?  Reducing cycle time is the primary objective and very few companies really strive for this.
  7. Over-reliance on consultants and lean coordinators – Rather than drive to make lean thinking a fundamental part of everyone’s job companies quite often see lean as something that is driven by specialists while people pretty much do as they have always done.  (probably just another way of stating #1-3)
  8. Senior management ignorance – Even in companies that publicly pronounce a commitment to a lean strategy it is appalling how little time senior managers put into learning about lean and how little they know about their “strategy”.

Hard to tell where any one of these reasons end and another picks up.  Most companies that fail are guilty of all 8 reasons.

That’s my list – it will be interesting to see any others anyone wants to add.

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  • USSynethics, last years Shingo Prize winner states: Lean is all about eliminating waste. We eliminate waste because it is disrespectful to make someone do something that is of no value. http://www.orgsurvival.com/changing-culture-ussynthetic-the-2011-shingo-award-winner/

  • Dr. Rajkumar

    It is very easy to describe Lean – Eliminate waste. to understand what is waste, how to identify, how to use the tools for elimination and really administer is very tough but having gone thru all stages and took 4 years to implement across the factory was tiresome but the results were marvellous in my experience. I would say the sustenance is more important to continue the journey. Most of the time people sit relaxed on achieving some results but continuous pursuance is the key.

  • Peter Parsons


    Great list. I particularly appreciate numbers 3 and 5 although I believe they are all on target. Too many times the focus is on teaching people how to use the tools rather than ensuring they are motivated to do so. Many companies assume their personnel are motivated or try to implement the program by decree.

    I would add to number 8 that management ignorance includes lack of active participation in the program and presence on the “ground floor”. While we don’t expect the CEO or GM (senior managers) to be constantly on the production floor, having him / her show up occasionally to engage in both formal and informal interactions to check in sends a strong message about commitment while developing an understanding of both what their tacticians are dealing with on a daily basis, and how their people are accepting the program.

    Thanks for your post.