Your Lean Initiative Will Most Likely Fail

Blasphemy! Heresy! Burn Him!   Yup, I wrote that.  Your Lean initiative will most likely fail.  A study released by the Lean Institute conducted by Industry Week in 2007 found that only 2 percent of companies that have a lean program achieved their anticipated results.  Further, more recent follow-up studies have shown that few of those sustained their gains initially made.  Much can be made of that statement and when you consider that more recent studies show at best that only half of Lean initiatives achieve any measure of success at best (some show as little as 5% success) you have to wonder what all of the excitement is about.


Factor in the great mystique surrounding it with fancy titles, different colored belts suggesting higher levels of expertise, a unique and confusing language to describe its components, and other identifiers you really have to scratch your head and wonder why so much time and effort, not to mention money, is being spent on an initiative with such an abysmal success rate.  By definition, Lean rules would suggest that if something fails 70%-90% of the time you should abandon it and move on.  Yet like any other fad, this one is held up as gospel and it has been held up for a long time.


Leans focus is wrong and that is why it fails.  It is brought in as a best practice without truly understanding the business’s needs, doesn’t always take the company culture into consideration, is improperly executed by trying to solve strategic or long-term issues in a short period of time (and conflicts often with culture) and assumes (to its detriment) that all work is stable.  It does not consider any cyclic changes to process or workflows.  Like running your business strictly on what your Accountant advises, Lean runs your business only by what the numbers tell the whatever belt rank your Lean Advisor is. (for the record I am a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt)


Harsh words regarding something so many have devoted dollars and years too.  Yet some of the principles and tools of lean have value.  They have also been around much longer than Lean as well.


The old adage, you cannot manage what you do not measure remains true in all things.  Whether it is a people process, a manufacturing process, a delivery process or any other kind of process you must measure it to manage it.  Deciding what to measure doesn’t require special certifications or education.  It requires more than anything else curiosity.  Toyota developed a simple process called the 5-Why’s.  This doesn’t require any special training and those of us who are parents know that any 2-year old can master this.  You see something and begin to ask why.  You ask why until you discover the answer, the root cause.  For example, These machined parts are coming out chipped.  Why?  Because the CNC machine is causing the problem.  Why?  Because when it is routing the part the waste material is getting between the bit and the raw material.  Why?  Because there is too much waste material inside the machine.  Why?  Because a felt strip that is supposed to prevent that is worn out.  Why?  Because it has been in there too long.  Why?  Because I didn’t replace it.  BINGO – you solved the problem.


Or, consider this.  We aren’t making enough profit on these parts.  You utilize the 5 whys to determine what you believe is the problem.  Your labor cost is too high.  You measure the steps your workers are using and discover that their set up time to do a job exceeds what you consider appropriate.  More 5-whys and you learn it is a training problem coupled with too many back and forth trips to get other components from the inventory bin.  You use this information to implement a corrective action that provides the necessary training along with some pre-assembly of needed components for the process.  You’ve improved individual worker performance and reduced time.  Problem solved.  That didn’t take a special belt or extensive certification training to accomplish either.


Any process control initiative you undertake should involve all of the above parts.  You have to measure, you have to investigate, you have to measure again.  You have to understand why you are doing it and your workforce (that most important and often ignored component in Lean processes) must be a part of the entire process.  Failure to engage in all of this will result in your not achieving the goals you have established for your business.  This doesn’t take special training or certifications.  It doesn’t require magic or sorcery.  It simply requires common sense tools and processes to understand the full scope of the issue, from identifying the issue to resolving it.  It takes nothing more.