If you follow this column on a regular basis you may find the subject matter out of sync with my normal promotion of lean thinking. If you have experienced a lean failure at your shop, brace yourself for some words that may be hard to swallow.
There are basically three types of lean initiatives – successful transformations, mediocre attempts at implementing some lean tools and techniques, and failures. I have to admit that in my 26 years of facilitating lean in a variety of business and industry segments, I have experienced all three types. It is my hope that if you understand why lean sometimes fails you will be in a better position to be one of the successes.

Lack of leadership

In most of my articles I stress that leadership is the key to a successful lean initiative so it stands to reason that the primary reason lean fails is due to a lack of leadership. That’s right, if you are the senior person in your organization and lean is floundering or not delivering expected results, the fault rests squarely on your shoulders. You establish the culture of your organization. If business as usual is the normal mode of operation, it is because you allow it to be. What is important to you is important to everyone else in your business, and what isn’t important to you isn’t important to others.
In previous articles I have cited examples of successful transformations. Here are a couple of examples of failed attempts to implement lean. If the examples reflect what you are experiencing in your lean journey, you need to do an honest assessment of your leadership skills and then search for articles on leadership in the FDMC archives. Regrouping and charting a new course for your lean journey will be far more rewarding than the failure that is waiting to happen if you don’t.


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Several years ago I was invited by the husband and wife ownership team of a furniture company to facilitate their lean journey. Management of the company was split evenly with the husband responsible for production and the production support processes while the wife managed sales, marketing, accounting, HR, and other administrative functions. Both of them were adamant that the company couldn’t continue to be successful without a fundamental culture change. They believed that lean thinking and the tools and techniques of lean would enable them and their staff to achieve the objective. 

What I learned after the initial phase of the journey was underway was that each felt that their area was running fine and that it was their partner’s area that needed to be fixed. There were even sacred cows within each of their areas of responsibility. For instance, I could promote lean thinking in the cutting and sewing departments, but not in upholstery. The husband had a mezzanine office that overlooked the upholstery area so he knew that area was running as well as it possibly could. His pronouncement ruled out any opportunity for connecting the manufacturing customer/supply chain to create flow, consolidate space, reduce WIP, and increase throughput. It also prevented me from even training that group in the tools and techniques of lean. On the other side of the business, the wife had sales and marketing under control so there was no need for me to train those employees or assess improvement opportunities in that area.
The wife felt that the most critical area for improvement was upholstery because there was too much reliance on finished goods inventory and even with a large inventory orders couldn’t ship on-time and complete. She felt that greater flexibility through cross-training and establishing manufacturing cells was the answer. The husband felt that the sales and marketing group was trying to cater to customers too much by offering hundreds of options that hamstrung the manufacturing operation.
Neither party was willing to assume a lean leadership role and provide the guidance, support, and commitment necessary for success. After six months of back and forth finger pointing and continual bickering between the partners, I advised them to get their act together and call me when they were ready to remove the blinders and commit to change. In their case lean was necessary, but not important. Since it wasn’t important to them it wasn’t important to anyone else in the organization even though others were anxious to get onboard.

North Carolina furniture plant

One of the leading furniture manufacturers in the United States had the best, most advanced lean process in place in a North Carolina plant that I have ever seen. I didn’t facilitate their transformation, but I became good friends with the then general manager. Whenever I toured the plant the employees eagerly showed me the latest improvements they had made and told me about other improvements that were being planned. Plant space had been reduced by half while throughput had almost doubled.
As areas of the plant were consolidated, employees would tape the area off with caution tape so it couldn’t be used to accumulate unnecessary stuff. When questioned about why areas were taped off in that way one employee remarked that the space was going to be used to make product that was currently being done by their competition. In other words, they intended to get so good that they would drive the competition out of business.
When the general manager retired he was replaced by someone from outside the corporate structure. The new GM had no experience with lean and didn’t want to take the time to learn how to continue to capitalize on improvements through lean thinking. He had a better way. He felt that the one-piece-flow concept underutilized resources and that the traditional batch manufacturing process was better, so he set about to dismantle things and return to the zone he was more comfortable in. As a result on-time delivery went down along with quality, profits, morale, and employee participation. The plant closed a few years ago because it couldn’t continue to be competitive. Lean wasn’t important to the boss, so it became unimportant to the staff, who found they couldn’t buck his authority, as well.
Is lean important to you? Are you part of a mediocre or failed attempt to implement lean? Your company’s level of success is in direct proportion to your leadership ability. If lean is failing, it is because you are failing to lead. Remember, if something isn’t important to you it isn’t important to the people who work for you either.

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