Difficulties with Changing to a Lean Culture: Part VIII
Why didn’t it work?
Mike Thelen shares experiences with implementation failures in Part VIII.
We should begin with a general definition. Implementation failure can be total failure, where a business
reverts to traditional manufacturing. It can be partial failure, where the actions aren’t quite matching the
words. It can be short-term failure, where a business continues to pursue Lean theory, but the actions
are temporarily suspended.
Each of these failures has unique characteristics, but there are many similar characteristics that can be
addressed. Using the common 80/20 rule, it is more productive to focus on the 20% of factors that impact
the 80% of problems.
Implementation failures are not caused by the front line employees (operators, hourly associates, etc).
This even includes Union shops. That needs to be clarified before moving forward. Until a company can
accept that as an axiom, there can be no progress. Once that is accepted, the process of introspection
What causes implementation failures, then? There are entire books that cover this specific question.
“How to Prevent Lean Implementation Failures” does an excellent job of covering many factors in a
simple, easy-to-read format. Beyond theory, what really seems to be the culprit behind failures?
Personal experiences are always more useful than generalized theory. The following factors are based
on such experiences.
Goals are often in conflict with Lean implementations. Each member of management is held to a goal
that ultimately contradicts Lean theory. Some examples include: general inventory goals without
structure, employee performance judged on standards (commonly known as earned minutes), monthly
sales dollar goals (not delivery performance) and machine absorption (which contradicts Inventory goals).
This is best known as Management by Results.
If Executive leadership does not change the goal structure, management will continue to focus on
meeting traditional goals, as that is the performance measurement used on annual evaluations. This
action must be lead from the top and must be universal. If leadership attempts to judge Lean areas on
Lean metrics and Traditional areas with Traditional metrics, those areas will conflict.
This is true for areas beyond manufacturing also. Often, financial service employees are held to
traditional accounting measurements. Those measurements contradict measurements from Lean
production areas. When this occurs, accountants will encourage actions that will hamper Lean
Fear of change can also lead to implementation failures. There is always fear. That is an unavoidable
obstacle. Not all fear is negative. Fear can act as a check and balance to implementation. When fear
moves beyond a check and balance and becomes a roadblock, it must be addressed. Jobs change.
Roles change. People struggle with jobs and roles changing, but that is not the ultimate driver of fear.
People fear loss. If loss of employment can occur due to the implementation, there will be no support and
the implementation will fail. No company that honestly pursues Lean will eliminate employees due to the
implementation. Those who claim to be pursuing Lean but conduct a layoff are using the word, not the
definition. People also fear loss of position or pay. If implementation leads to downgrading and loss of
income, there will be no further support. Lean is not cutting costs. It is removal of waste, which will lead
to lower costs. There is a difference in practice.
People also fear failure. One tenet of Lean is to expose problems. Many leaders believe they have failed
if they cannot solve problems, or they do not wish to face reprimand, so they tend to hide problems.
Instances abound of leaders who believe corrective action is to discipline the offender, rather than identify
and eliminate the real cause. The medical and accounting professions have had numerous examples in
recent news. If an organization has no desire to understand the problem, attain the root cause and
implement actual solutions (as opposed to “band-aids”), the implementation will fail.
Foremost, executive leadership must believe in the change. If that commitment, supported through
actions, is not blatantly obvious to every employee, the implementation will suffer total failure. Note, not
partial or temporary, but total failure. People are perceptive and traditional approaches have made
employees savvy to flavor-of-the-month programs. Employees will see through false belief immediately.
If belief is established, executives cannot be invisible. Every moment an executive is on the floor
(whether production, sales, or other support services) brings credibility to the change. Conversely, every
moment executives are not on the “Gemba” weakens the change. If an executive is not visible, the
change is viewed as a “mandate from on high”.
Executives must set aside time not only for a daily walk (Genchi Genbutsu), but also for unscheduled
observation time through all departments. Too often, executives are tied to phone calls, electronic
communications, report-outs, or meetings. The best leaders spend hours per day on the floor. This is
truly the only way to see how a plant is performing. Executives who aren’t aware of activities even one
level below them then don’t understand why the implementation is struggling. Yet, they often don’t take
the time to discover the actions, choosing to depend on a report-out by those managers below them.
Like executives, middle management cannot contradict change. Yet, this happens constantly. Middle
managers often excel at smoothing the water so the executives don’t see the wake. Many take pride in
such activities. Many middle managers drive good potential leaders out of the company with their
actions, but executives aren’t aware of the impacts until after those future leaders are lost.
Middle managers have much to fear. They generally view the current status of the plant as their crowning
achievement. To change their environment is to say their ideas were wrong. It is human nature to have
difficulty believing one’s ideas aren’t correct. This is compounded at the middle management level as
they have been promoted based on those exact ideas. Most middle managers have a Taylorist view of
leadership, as that was the gold standard of leadership for fifty years. Change is very difficult for many of
Some people have excellent ideas, some have a wealth of knowledge, some are great starters, and
others are great finishers. Very few people have all the skills to become brilliant leaders. Yet, many
people do not function well in teams. How a person responds to stress is a great measurement of
leadership, as is the ability to work within projects.
Idea generators are often worth their weight in gold. Then the idea has problems and they become worth
their weight in lead. Idea generation is necessary to implementation success, but complete idea
incorporation is critical to success. Ideas that are implemented haphazardly or ineffectually will cause
anxiety and drive people back to traditional approaches.
Those who cannot delegate will struggle with Lean and can cause failure. This includes those who feel
that operators cannot be trusted or given responsibility. They cannot share their knowledge. While these
individuals may be good leaders, they will be stressed to such point that they break. Lean requires
teamwork and sharing. Micro-management will hinder the implementation
Many leaders are great out of the gate. However, their follow-through is lacking. These people start
down the lean path, but ultimately they slide back into old habits. The established routine is easier to
follow. To quote the line in a song, “once the new wears off and the old shines through…”
Then there are great finishers. Every implementation needs finishers. Without them, the process can
drag on for eons. However, if there is no one to start the process, a good closer is valueless. The
baseball team with the best closer in the league won’t win many games if there isn’t a starting staff that
can get to the later innings. Closers don’t get things moving. They keep things moving. One of the most
difficult aspects of change is to simply take the first step.
With the varied management and personal styles, it is critical that team development is successful. As
stated before, very few leaders have all the skills needed. If a well-rounded team structure is not
established, the opportunity for implementation failure is greatly increased.
The most difficult task is introspection. Leaders (both formal and informal) who cannot be open with
themselves will not be open to others. The most difficult thought process is to ask, “What am I doing to
create this failure?” Until each leader answers the question honestly and without fear or reservation, the
opportunity for Lean implementation failure is greatly increased. Leave the ego at the door and determine
what can yet be done to achieve implementation success.
There is no magic pill for Lean initiatives. The Lean process requires time, commitment, and
determination. Companies that cannot envision the long-term commitment to Lean, and only use the
tools for short-term gain, will achieve some limited success. However, without the culture supporting
those tools, the Lean initiative will fail, becoming the "flavor of the week" that everyone knew would not
“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.” ~ W. Edwards Deming
Mike Thelen is Lean Facilitator at Aberdeen, SD based Hub City, Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit
Corporation, Beloit, WI. He has led Lean Initiatives in positions from Front-Line Supervisor to System
Coordinator in various corporations since 2001. Mike can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.