Why Lean fails (and what you can do about it)

According to some studies, nearly 80% of all companies fail to achieve the desired results in their work with Lean. In this article, I will analyze three regular problems that I have seen for myself, and I will give some suggestions on what you can do to minimize the risk of failure.

Problem number 1: Lean is seen as something good in itself

Maybe Lean is getting a bit too trendy. What that Lean means is becoming a bit hard to see. The fact is that some people have begun using the word Lean more as a synonym for “good” and not as something with real content.

To strive after being good is unfortunately not enough since the word holds a different meaning for different people. If you can’t explain where you want to go, you will never get there. The same thing applies if you can’t present a thorough and reliable development plan.

What you should do instead

1. Phrase a long-term and visionary goal that means something for everyone. In what exactly is it that you or your company will be world-class?

2. Make a thorough analysis of the current situation to get an understanding of where you are at right now. Take into account both strong and weak factors.

3. Work out a strategy that in a credible way shows how you will get closer to your ultimate goal. The strategy should have a time limit of 3-5 years and should be substantial. Everyone need to understand what will be done, when and how many resources will need.

4. Probably the strategy will contain methods and views from Lean, but maybe it will turn out that other methods can be just as important, for example, Six Sigma, TPM, or automation.

Problem number two: Managers aren’t leading

One of the common mistakes is when the development is being led by some specialists. They could be an internal Lean-organization or just some passionate people. Many times that is seen as a success, but the culture doesn’t change. People may see Lean as a project or something happening simultaneously with the regular work. When the specialist/s changes focus, everything goes back to normal.

What you should do instead

1. Clarify to the management in the organization that their role is to lead the work for change and to coach their colleagues into the new way of working.

2. Invest in education and opportunities for discussion about Lean philosophy and change management.

3. Contemplate if your managers have a fair chance to handle their new role. How does their workday look, is there even any time left over to be a coaching leader?

4. Clarify for your team leaders that their responsibility is making sure everybody is working standardized, to follow-up any deviations and initiate root cause analysis for improvement. Train and coach them into their new role.

5. Have a plan for how to change the culture. Use all of the tools available for this, including recruitments, salary strategies, performance reviews, etc.

Problem number three: The top management says the “wrong” things

Too often the enthusiasm about Lean disappears from a work team when one of the managers drop a poorly thought through comment. That comment may reveal that he/she doesn’t understand the long-term view that is essential to the concept of Lean.

What you should do instead

1. Educate all leaders in lean thinking. As the leader, you will need to have a deep enough understanding of the concept so that you start to question your actions and the company culture

2. Warn about a too strict focus on Key Performance Indicators in every department that won’t further cooperation and an overall view. A classic example is if the production manager and the purchases manager don’t share similar goals.

3. Lead by example. Work with Lean-methods in your leadership processes. Use visual boards placed where everyone will see them. Show everyone how you leaders work with them.

By Oskar Olofsson


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