How to Design a Lean Implementation So Failure is Guaranteed

Three critical characteristics will help gauge your chances for success.

Let me share with you a scenario I have seen often -- way too often.

Someone from the C-suite, like the CEO, makes a visit to a nearby facility that claims it is "lean by every measure." He is completely wowwed by the neatness, with a place for everything and everything in its place. He is amazed by the smooth flow of the product and the smooth flow of both the people and the information they need. He is further impressed with the "visual factory" depicting a high degree of control, resulting in excellent on-time performance with low levels of scrap and rework. Furthermore, he sees a workforce that is producing independently at a pace his facility cannot even approach, yet it is working with both a high degree of comfort and confidence -- almost like a stress-free environment. In addition, the facility is doing this with some surprisingly unimpressive machinery.

And he is sold, absolutely, totally sold on this "lean thing."

He promptly gathers the rest of the C-suite and with conviction and passion declares that this "lean thing" is "exactly what we need." With animation like he has never displayed, the CEO relays all of the wonderful things he has just seen. Soon he is surrounded by a group of impassioned followers. Quickly they devise a plan by appointing Juan as the lean leader. He is a midlevel manager who is proficient in many of these techniques and has been a vocal advocate of lean for years. Next they appoint three others to work with Juan -- the lean implementation team -- and announce that Juan will unveil the lean implementation plan in 30 days. The team, on schedule, publishes the implementation plan. They want to get everyone involved so their year-one objectives are to implement 5S and standard work across the entire corporation. Juan and his team teach all the facilities and spend a great deal of time traveling to each facility. Juan and his team not only introduce the initiative but also teach the tools. They then are required to follow up and assist the various locations as those workers implement the lean tools.

Does this sound good to you? Well . . . don't be fooled. This is the perfect formula for failure.

So what's wrong? We have a jazzed-up top management. We have dedicated expert resources to train and support. We have a published plan. Everyone appears to be on board. Excitement and anticipation are high. Doesn't it sound like success is right around the corner?

Well, the lean answer is "no." The not-so-lean answer is "hell no."

Failing by the Droves

Culture-changing efforts designed like this are failing by the droves. And it makes no difference if it is a lean initiative, re-engineering, something smaller like a total productive maintenance push or an effort to implement Six Sigma. They will fail if they are designed in this manner.

Again I say, "So what's so bad about this?"

Well, let me share some information. We at Quality Consultants have studied a number of culture-changing initiatives and compared their measured level of success to a variety of critical success factors. The success of each firm was computed using a 1-to-4 scale with 1 being a failed event, 4 being a continuing success, and with gradations between. Each critical characteristic was evaluated on a 0-to-5 maturity scale with 0 being very ineffective toward achieving success and 5 representing full maturity of the characteristic of concern.

Using these data, correlations were made and three critical characteristics stood out as some that could be categorized as "sounding very good but not leading to success." Each of these three critical characteristics was an "error" in the design of the implementation effort and was so significant that if the characteristic was done correctly, success was possible. However, if the characterisitic was executed ineffectively, failure was virtually guaranteed; each was a "litmus test" for failure.

Just what are the three characteristics and what do the correlations to success look like? These critical characteristics, in question format are:

  1. Have you integrated the culture changing initiative into your daily activities?

  2. Do you have the required sense of urgency?
  3. Is your initiative line or staff driven?

ERROR NO. 1- Implement a Tools-Only Approach

This characteristic measures how well you integrate your culture-changing initiative into the daily activities of both the management and the rank and file. Many times people talk about the "tools" of lean manufacturing, citing such tools as kaizen, heijunka, 5S and value stream mapping, to name a few.

Then an effort is made to integrate these tools into the business culture. This, too, "sounds" very logical. The people are taught the theory and techniques on how to apply the tools but all too often are left to their own inexperience on "how" to apply these tools. In effect the implementation team is saying, "Here is a tool, now go apply it." All the "tools" of lean are countermeasures designed to mitigate some type of waste. So in "lean speak," when we use this "tools" approach we are effectively saying, "Here is a countermeasure [a solution], now go find a problem to use it on." As strange as that may sound, that is all too often the approach used. However, to properly root out waste and improve on a daily basis we must ask ourselves for:

  1. an understanding of the present state
  2. an understanding of the desired future state and
  3. What are the next steps, the countermeasures, we must take to achieve the desired state?

This questioning approach then leads to a selection of countermeasures that are employed. So in the end tools are selected. But they are selected based on the needs of the facility not some arbitrary selection process. When using the problem solving approach, which is the correct lean approach, tools are "pulled" based on the needs of the facility rather than "pushed" to them and expected to be utilized.

ERROR NO. 2 -- Create No Sense of Urgency

The second critical characteristic is that there must be an appropriate sense of urgency. Our mythical but all too real CEO got all "jazzed up" about what he saw, and I am sure he was sincere in his desire to improve his business. Again that "sounds" good, but the rank and file -- the folks with their hand on the tiller -- needs to know each and every day that what they are doing is necessary. Nothing will catalyze this better than if they can see daily that they are making a difference to what really matters. They need to feel both a sense of accomplishment and a sense of urgency to stay focused. The CEO may convey his passion in his periodic speeches, but each and every hour of each and every day the rank and file must be reminded by this sense of urgency to stay focused. With it they can see their contribution and sense their individual importance toward the betterment of the facility. The point is that the motivation of the workers cannot come in fits and starts from the passionate speeches of the leadership. It must be present, with the worker, on the floor, continually reminding and reinforcing his/her actions. There simply is no substitute for this.

ERROR NO. 3 -- Let the Program be Staff Driven

The third critical characteristics really gets to the point of precisely who is implementing the initiative and who will both learn from and lead the waste elimination efforts. When the staff is involved beyond basic design, initial training and specialized support untold amounts of damage are done. The initiative absolutely must be line-driven. The corporation management and leadership must be lean-competent; there is no substitute for this. And it must be driven from the top down with no layers missed at all. Again there is no substitute for this! When the line organization relies heavily on the staff to train and execute waste countermeasures a great deal of effort is improperly directed, knowledge transfer is missed and lean leadership is completely lost to the staff functions. This may look good in the short term, but in the long term it guarantees failure.


The danger of these three typical errors is that they all "sound" so good. But make no mistake about it; to be successful we need not just any lean tools that "sound" good but the specific lean tools that will assist in the attainment of our critical goals. We need to have a motivating sense of urgency that is visible each and every day, not just periodic injections of energy via "sound bites" from the C-Suite. Finally, although it may "sound" good for the lean implementation to have some early successes led by the staff trainers; in the long run it is imperative that the entire line organization incorporate lean leadership skills into their daily activities so this culture-changing initiative is the "new way" to do things, which then leads to continual success.

Lonnie Wilson has been teaching and implementing lean and other culture-changing techniques for more than 40 years. His book, "How To Implement Lean Manufacturing" was released in August 2009. His new book on "How to Lead and Manage a Lean Facility" is under construction and will go to print in the third quarter of 2011. Wilson is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. In addition to IndustyWeek, he has published articles in Quality Digest and is a frequent contributor to iSixSigma magazine. His manufacturing experience spans 20 years with Chevron, where he held a number of management positions. In 1990 he founded Quality Consultants,, which teaches and applies lean and other culture-changing techniques to small entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 firms, principally in the United States, Mexico and Canada. In his not-so-spare time, Wilson is the men's varsity soccer coach at Cathedral High School in El Paso, Texas. You can e-mail Lonnie Wilson at [email protected].

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