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Q&A With Sarah Stuart: What Happens When Lean Fails?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017 | Operational Excellence

Sarah Stuart, Account Executive for North King County

Gordy Anderson, President of Box One Solutions

I recently received a question though our website.  To answer it, I decided to reach out to one of our Resource Partners as he is an expert on how behavioral systems impact continuous improvement efforts.

Gordy Anderson is the President of Box One Solutions.  Not only is he one of our top Resource Partners in implementing Lean Manufacturing, but his expertise is unique in that he helps to ensure a company’s culture supports and enables success.

 I visited with Gordy this week to answer the question we received.

Q “Why are we not achieving the results from our Lean Improvement efforts that we thought we would?  We keep holding Kaizens, and the improvements are implemented, but we keep backsliding.”


Gordy, you and I know this is not the only company out there with this concern.   A quick internet search will reveal that the failure rate for many improvement efforts, and not just Lean, are quite high.  Why is it that so many organizations are not getting the results they anticipated?


Though there are many different reasons for the high failure rate in lean implementation, there is one cause that is so pervasive that it should be addressed in every change initiative.

This root cause is a failure to understand that what we call ‘Lean’ is a behavioral system.


What do you mean when you use the term ‘behavioral system?’


When Lean is implemented correctly it is designed to establish and reinforce a set of behaviors necessary to operating in a ‘Lean’ fashion.

David Mann, author of the book Creating a Lean Culture, made a similar observation on the leadership side of the equation when he wrote, ‘A typical lean implementation focuses on physical/technical changes and only gets you 20% of the way (at best). It is the easiest 20% to accomplish…’ He went on to explain that, ‘The next 80% is a more difficult rearrangement to make. As a leader, many things have to change. These require a deeper level of change in people and how they think and work – the information you need to rely on, your deeply ingrained work habits, day-to-day and hour-to-hour routines, and the way you think about managing work and productivity.’

One of the big reasons for the continued success of the Lean approach at Toyota is that the system there conforms to principles of human performance that have been identified and developed over the past 50 plus years.

Often a potential client tells me that they ‘tried lean and it didn’t work.’ Not infrequently, when I begin to probe for a more detailed explanation of process improvements that were implemented, I find that even when a new process design looked like it would yield significant improvements in performance, it was implemented without regard for effective human performance practices.

A broader pattern related to this issue that I have noticed over time is that organizations with ineffective performance management practices find it nearly impossible to successfully implement lean improvement programs that stick over time.


What is a company to do?


It starts with building an understanding of what a human performance system is and the variables influencing the behavior of a person in a work system.  It is in this way that we learn to understand the behaviors need to meet the results we want.  We learn that Lean is not just at set of tools, but a system that should drive a set of behaviors that support and sustain it, including management behaviors.


Can you give me an example?


Here is a simple example.  I often hear this in the companies I assist.  They report that they have spent quite a bit of time implementing a two-bin Kanban system to eliminate part shortages.  Everything was set up correctly, but the organization still runs out of parts.  On investigation, we find missing bins, misplaced bins, bins that are empty, sitting where the last part was pulled.


Wow……yeah, that is a common one.  So learning about human performance systems and incorporating the principles when implementing can help solve this problem?


Not only “can it help”, it is imperative.


So what’s the first step?


Each company is different.  Some companies are further along in their journey than others.  I suggest starting with an assessment.  I know everyone says this, but for success, it is important especially when planned results have not been achieved.  Once the assessment is complete, the company will have a better idea of the next steps they have available to them.

My final recommendation to become a Lean Success Story is to:

1)       Start with the individual assessment for your company.

2)       Use a consulting partner who can help you design your lean improvements with both process and human performance elements in mind. Make allowances for behaviors and ineffective vs. effective human performance practices.

3)       Keep your company’s individual journey in mind.  Do not compare yourself to other companies.  Know that you are on your own journey to Lean Greatness.

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