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How Do We Prevent Lean Transformation from Failing?

“Sensi Image

Being a lean sensi and all around lean advocate, I was recently asked by a client in Southern Kentucky if lean ever fails.  My answer made the room very quiet.   “Of course I have seen lean fail”.  However, the lean concept and philosophy hasn’t failed.  Rather, I have seen the presentation of lean principles fail. The way it is presented can cause the implementation to fail. 

The complex nature of Lean Principles increases the likelihood that something will go astray as it is implemented causing the program to not succeed or survive.  To become proficient in lean, the operator has a copious amount of information to assimilate.  So, it is important not to short-change the time that is spent for training lean leadership and your lean team members.  This time is a necessary cost to incur before the company can truly realize benefits from lean implementation to their bottom-line. 

This delay between initial outlay of investment and seeing the corresponding benefits can put the implementation of lean at a real risk.  This risk is derived by managers who are hesitant to approve or continue a project that requires justifying front-end expenses before there is anything on which to base expected returns. 

Executives that truly want to implement a lean transformation must to be willing to dive in and support the process of a lean transformation even before being able to estimate its returns.  These executives need to be able to explain and support the transformation expenses to shareholders or executive leadership.

There are three common “lean-killers” on which I will focus initially.  These 3 “lean-killers” are: foreign words; acronyms; and trigger words. 

“Misunderstanding Image

Often we begin teaching the team on the floor several Japanese terms.  Jodoka, for example, is a term referring to an electronic fail safe.  Poke yoke, is another term referring to a manual fail safe.  We, however, may be wasting precious time teaching a new language that may just get confused or forgotten by the workforce implementing lean.  We would be better to try to use equivalent terms from the local language of the workforce. 

The second “lean-killer” mentioned was the use of acronyms.   Often times, acronyms are created by intellectuals who care more about how sophisticated they sound rather than communicating the concept.  Workforce from the shop floor can get confused with acronyms such as SMED or 5S.  This is similar to learning a new language. 

The third “lean-killer” can be the use of trigger words while attempting to go through lean transformation.  The use of trigger words can trigger a defensive emotional response.  Wouldn’t you cringe, for example, if someone came into your factory and told you that 95% of everything your team did was waste?  Everyone wants to feel that they are a valuable asset, contributing real value.  “Accountability” is another trigger word that can often mean assigning blame.  Leadership could find that they would get better results talking about root causes of issues rather than talking about accountability.

In addition to those 3 “lean-killers”, the strategic plan or lean strategy can be another source of failure in the lean transformation.  The lean strategy should clearly identify the following 5 items:

“Strategic Lean Plan Image

  1. Incentive:  If there is not a clear reason (incentive) for change it will result in Slow Change.
  2. Vision: If your strategy doesn’t include a clear vision of what the lean transformation will accomplish, it can end in confusion. 
  3.  Action Plan:  If there is no action plan identified, then actions will start without a plan for how long they should take, the lean transformation can have many false starts.
  4. Skills:  If the leader or leaders of lean transformation do not have the skills needed to lead the transformation and the ability to get involved in a hands on fashion, the rest of the team will experience greater fear in implementing the changes. 
  5. Resources:  If there are not resources or enough fuel to make it happen, the team will end up frustrated and resistant to future efforts to change as well. 

 So, to give your lean transformation the greatest opportunity to succeed and to bring the greatest results, this lean sensi would remove the foreign words, as impressive as they may sound.  I would also minimize the use of new acronyms.  I would not use them without giving the team clear definitions of each acronym used.  I would also eliminate the use of words that can commonly trigger negative responses for team members or the workforce.  I would also make sure that my lean strategic plan included clear incentive, vision, action plans, skilled leadership and designated resources sufficient to cover complete implementation of the solutions identified in the transformation process.  When all of these things are implemented as stated, the chances that the lean transformation will be successful and sustained are greater.

To inquire further about the lean transformation process or any of the continuous improvement or growth services offered by Advantage Kentucky Alliance, contact Kurt Felten, our Marketing Specialist, at (606)-620-0076, or email him at   You can see more about AKA and what we’ve been doing recently in Kentucky by visiting our website

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