As an example, during a recent flight, I had a discussion with the head of operations for the airline I was flying. He proudly told me that the airline was "doing lean" and that they had been doing it for awhile. As he was telling me this, though, it was quite clear to me that the airline was not "doing lean." They may have people working on lean projects and trying to cut costs (or I should say, slash costs), but there is so much more to lean that he obviously did not understand.
In the lean world, waste and costs are reduced as quality is improved. the noticeable drop in the quality of service from most airlines in recent years (including this one) is a sure sign that this company was not "doing lean."
In another example, a large European company spent a great deal of money on their lean implementation. they hired a coordinator for the production department in one of their regions and appointed several people to be lean facilitators. They poured a lot of money into the initiative, but the process failed to really take hold in the company. Although they had isolated projects that showed huge savings, they could not successfully replicate their results to similar processes in other parts of the company.
Like the airline example, this company's senior leaders had not bought into the concept of lean. they did not truly understand what the initiative was or what it meant to the company. They had heard about the success some companies were having with lean and decided one day to do it themselves. Instead of being involved in the process, they delegated its implementation to someone outside of the senior team and sat back expecting results. In response to a directive to add facilitators to their teams, department managers found it convenient to assign the role to people returning from overseas assignments who did not have an open position waiting for them (whether or not they had the characteristics to be successful). As a result, the people responsible for facilitating improvement projects often had no interest in lean. They did, however, have an interest in remaining employed, so they accepted the positions, considering them temporary until something more permanent came along.
The Elements of Failure
In my experience, I have found that there are common elements to failed lean initiatives. These elements all stem from the lack of understanding that it is counter to the way most companies operate and, therefore requires a fundamental change to the company's systems and culture.
What I mean when I refer to a failed lean initiative is that it never comes close to achieving the potential savings that are possible. Although the company may see financial benefits from isolated projects, it is not addressing the issues that lead to the big gains. I'm referring to the difference between eliminating 3%-5% of waste (at best) versus the 90%-95% that is possible. Basically, without a clear understanding of lean, leadership, culture, and systems, you may never even know that your initiative is failing.
Although there are a number of elements that prevent lean from being truly successful, I listed below the five most common that I've seen in organizations.
- A Technical Approach
The tools of lean are easy - it is the cultural barriers that are the most difficult to address. the tools will not lead to big gains unless the cultural barriers to improvement and change have been broken down.
- Lack of Top Management Understanding
You can't commit to something that you don't understand. Lean requires commitment and involvement by senior leaders. The organization's leaders must work on identifying and eliminating the barriers so others can focus on process improvements.
Fear can cripple creativity and the willingness to become involved in an improvement process. the company's leaders must continually identify and remove the causes of fear to release the potential of team members.
People must trust in management that improvements in productivity will not lead to layoffs and management must trust in the knowledge and intentions of workers.
- Short-Term Thinking
Changing the culture of an organization is a long-term process. Benefits will be seen along the way, but the large gains will only come when the cultural barriers are removed, which requires patience and consistent efforts by senior leaders. Costs are reduced as the organization's health is improved. Efforts to slash costs through layoffs, across-the-board cuts, etc. will offset any progress made through lean.