7 reasons why the Lean implementation did not pay off

– Updated 06.08.2020 – Estimatet readtime: 6 min

Initially, the enthusiasm was great: The top leader proclaimed the importance of Lean and told everyone to contribute. The company worked for a while on the introduction and use of Lean methods, but then the commitment fell slowly but surely.

Where did it go wrong?

There can be many reasons why an improvement initiative does not produce the desired results. In this article we have compiled a list of typical deficiencies in a Lean venture that can give you a clue as to what needs to be done to revitalize the venture.

But first a recap; what is Lean?

Lean is a management initiative originating from Toyota’s production system. Today it has been further developed for use in all types of industries.

Lean’s overall goal is to create more value for customers, employees and owners. This will be achieved through continuous work to eliminate waste in the business processes. With this in mind, it is therefore “easy” to say “YES” to the introduction of Lean.

Companies that embark on a Lean journey will, in the first phase, often train employees, establish teams and reorganize work areas. Some also introduce focused meeting structures for ongoing operational control and replanning. Those who succeed often go on to introduce continuous improvement processes that involve all employees.

The opportunities for improvement in the early phases are often identified by the employees in the processes. Some companies also conduct on-site value stream mapping to identify and close improvement needs.

Nevertheless, the initiators of the Lean implementation often find that the momentum and interest of the leaders diminishes as time goes by. They realize that action must be taken to save the Lean effort.

In such a situation it can be difficult to see what one has done wrong or what one should have done differently. Maybe you work in a business where the Lean venture is in a similar situation to the one described above?

If that is the case, we have created a checklist of typical deficiencies for Lean initiatives [1] that are unsuccessful. The purpose is to help you identify and describe the deficiencies in your business. Based on such a description, it is easier to make concrete proposals for corrective measures to revitalize the Lean initiative and get back on track.

Read more: What are Lean and Six Sigma – and why should it be seen in context?

7 reasons for why Lean-implementations lose momentum

The sections below describe common direct causes for a Lean venture to lose momentum. Direct causes are visible and/or measurable symptoms of deficiencies. Each symptom is the result of several underlying causal chains.

The causal chains may include several of the same underlying causes. Therefore, when you read the text below you will see repetitions of the same underlying causes.

1. Lean is no longer on the top management’s agenda

An underlying reason for this may be that not all managers have specific responsibilities and goals related to implementation. It is therefore not of common interest and falls out of the agenda at the management meetings.

Another reason may be that the Lean structures that are established are not used to achieve priority operational improvement goals. The leaders are therefore not followed up on the progression of the Lean work.

The indirect communication to the organization when the management does not have Lean on the joint agenda results in the work not being prioritized. Then the chance that the organization slowly, but surely downgrades the Lean work is high. 

Leadership meetings and management meetings are arenas where management, sharing and development of knowledge are conducted directly and indirectly. If Lean falls out as an agenda item in the early stages of the Lean implementation, the leadership team hardly ever continue develop their Lean knowledge, understanding, communication and approach.

Thus, the management team does not demonstrate the ownership, commitment and understanding needed for the organization to fully support the Lean implementation plans. The chances are good the organization will lose faith and commitment.

2. Lean-implementation is limited to some departments

An important underlying reason for this may be a lack of understanding in management that important operational performance issues often have simultaneous root causes in multiple departments, the interfaces between departments and their processes.

The Lean initiative is thus limited to the department or departments where the waste is most evident and the profit potential seems greatest. The employees in other parts of the organization are thus not included in the “Lean journey” and the company loses a golden opportunity to build a common results-oriented improvement culture.

The company also loses the opportunity to involve people with the same Lean knowledge from different departments in solving important performance problems with simultaneous causes in multiple departments and the interfaces between them.

The root causes of management’s lack of understanding of what Lean is and what Lean can be used for are primarily a lack of joint training as well as a lack of common management and development of Lean knowledge.

3. Lean-work is not linked to the company’s most important performance targets

The managers in most companies live in a situation where the “to do” list is larger than the actual capacity. The leaders will by nature prioritize what the top manager and other managers agree is important.

What managers determine is important is given clear ownership, responsibility and goals. A Lean initiative that is not directly linked to the business objectives the top management steer towards therefore faces an uncertain future.

One reason why a Lean initiative is not directly linked to priority business objectives may be the lack of understanding of what Lean is and how Lean can be used to achieve its goals. A central root cause of this deficiency may be insufficient joint training and subsequent management of Lean knowledge.


Download checkst - 5 symptoms of poor performance


4. Lean-structures are not linked to other important structures

The Lean structures being built are only part of the overall business system that the business needs to achieve long-term strategic goals. To ensure the duration and best use of the Lean structures, they must be linked with other relevant structures.

Examples of such structures are quality systems, relevant HR systems, reporting systems, process management systems, communication processes and collaboration tools, the strategy process and project and portfolio management structures.

A common future state for the overall business system and Lean as an important component in this will create better shared understanding and probably contribute to increased commitment (and reduced resistance).

5. The implementation of Lean is driven by consultants (and not by the managers)

Lack of insight into what Lean is and how Lean can be used to achieve long-term business goals can easily lead the top management to let good consultants take responsibility for the implementation.

The consultants analyze the business and drive the necessary improvements. Often, this work has short-term goals aiming at resource efficiency. In such consultancy-driven implementations, employees and managers are often left on the sidelines.

The risk is that the organization’s commitment, ownership and expertise related to Lean is so low that the air is let out of the balloon once the consultants have completed their assignment. The organization is simply unable to carry on the work itself.

6. Implementation of Lean is done too quickly

An implementation of Lean can be regarded as organizational development that should include everyone. It should therefore have a progression that is perceived as accelerated evolution – not a revolution.

If the organization’s leaders and employees are not given sufficient opportunity to develop their Lean understanding and then further develop their Lean skills, there is a risk that they will never become safe in their work with Lean.

The leaders will then not take responsibility and will not seek to change their own management behavior in line with the Lean management principles. An important reason for rapid implementation is often a lack of insight from senior management on what Lean is really about and what it takes to succeed.

The root causes of the lack of insight are primarily a lack of joint management training and a lack of joint management and development of Lean knowledge.

7. Leaders allocate too little resources to Lean work

In one of Walt Disney’s best-known adventures, it’s the toys that decorate the Christmas tree the night before Christmas Eve so it’s ready when the kids wake up. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the real world.

Nothing is done if you do not set aside time to decorate the tree and so is the Lean implementation as well. Little is done if you do not have the necessary resources.

The implementation thus takes too long and the measurable business results will be similarly disappointing. An underlying reason why managers do not allocate sufficient resources is that Lean work is not considered an investment in tomorrow’s competitiveness.

The managers are therefore not confident that the lean effort will have the desired effect on important performance targets. One root cause for this may be a lack of understanding of how Lean tools and methods can be used to achieve priority operational improvement goals.

How is this in your company?

Are any of the points above relevant to the Lean commitment in your business? Maybe you should take steps to revitalize the Lean work? If you think revitalization is necessary, it may be helpful for you to describe the status and risk of the Lean implementation in your business.

When setting arguments for revitalization, it may be helpful for you to download our checklist that describes 5 symptoms of poor operational efficiency which indicates a need to take action.

5 symptoms of poor operational performance


[1]: Literature reference: 50 shades of Lean – Why only a few succeed, ISBN 978-91-637-2636-1