Why Use Lean if So Many Fail To Do So Effectively

If less than 1% of companies are successful with Lean, why are we doing it?

Lots of us are not. I would say the efforts I see “fail” are because they don’t do it. They have something they call TQM, six sigma, lean management or whatever and try out 10-30% of it in some half-measures, with big doses of Dilbert’s pointy haired boss methods and then don’t get great results. Wow.

The biggest complaint (with some merit) I see is why is lean/Deming/six sigma… so hard to actually do. If companies constantly fail to do it at all (even when they use the name) isn’t that an issue. Isn’t that a weakness of the “solution.” My answer is: yes. The caveat is, until someone comes up with the management system that both gets the results using Deming’s management ideas can, and is super easy for organizations to actually fully adopt (and have the great success that doing so provides) I know of nothing better than trying to do these things.

Certainly I believe you are much better off attempting to use Deming, lean or six sigma than listen to someone that tells you they have management instant pudding that will give you great results with no effort.

My belief is that a partial success rate is much higher than 1%. While many organization never go beyond slapping a few good tools on a outdated management system those few tools actually have good results. Maybe 50% of the implementations are so lame they have almost no positive results (not even getting improvement worth the time and effort). They could be seen as “failures,” to me. Those that actually have a right to say they are practicing “lean” I would say is a pretty small number but still above 1%?

There is also an advantage to this stuff being hard to do. You really don’t have to invent anything new. If you just have persistence and keep continually improving along the path applying ideas proven over decades from Deming, Ohno, McGregor, Christensen, Drucker, Scholtes, Womack, Roger Hoerl (six sigma)… you have a great advantage over all those organizations that ignored the ideas or made a bit of effort and then gave up.

Related: Engage in Improving the Management SystemRethinking or Moving Beyond Deming Often Just Means Applying More of What Dr. Deming Actually SaidManagement Advice FailuresManagement Improvement FlavorsHas Six Sigma Been a Success?

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11 Responses to Why Use Lean if So Many Fail To Do So Effectively

  1. Joe Dager says:

    I do believe the 1% number is skewed. I agree with you that it is hard and sometimes just flat out overwhelming when people enter in the process thinking a tool-set changes culture and makes it as easy as instant pudding.

    I see hope in the future and improving on that skewed number. I get frustrated when I see Leadership always cited for failure. Sure, Leadership is responsible but “change in culture” must be an act of individual responsibility. You gotta “wanna”.

    I think we will be writing about more successful Lean implementations in the future as organizational structures evolve. Culture change will be embraced not by top-down or bottom-up strategies but by collaborative strategies and organizations.

  2. John Hunter says:

    Unfortunately one of the important methods to improve the success rates of organizations is to pay attention to why management improvement efforts failed in the past. TQM actually was the method that addressed this issue more than any other system has. I think TQM addressed it poorly, but they openly talked about it in most any decent effort and tried to think of how to avoid the pitfalls their previous efforts fell into. This area is hard though (lots of psychology and systems thinking interconnected). And we have made very little progress because what TQM discussed (on getting management system improvements adopted) was not continually improved for the last few decades.

    I do see some efforts to address this area in lean and Deming (but significantly less than TQM did, frankly). And most management concepts (including most consultants pushing flavors of lean, six sigma, leadership…) pushed now try to act as though their new way is completely new and different. And completely ignore trying to learn from past management change failures is needed. That is a very stupid thought process to achieve management improvement success (maybe to sell some management system foolish managers though it is successful?).

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  4. David says:

    If my own experience at business improvement (as victim, not initiator) is anything to go by, I would guess that failure occurs when effort is directed not to the core work, but elsewhere.
    I recall one particular effort where the entire management team ended up at the conclusion of a conference with lots of ‘projects’ to improve our business, but none of the projects would actually do that. Some might produce local optimisation, but while the projects were being done (they were really document production ceremonies), the everyday work went on largely unchanged.
    It would have been better if we’d identified one part of the value stream and figured out how we could all act to improve it.

  5. I agree that the success rate of 1% is an arbitrary number. Define a successful lean implementation. Isn’t continuous improvement at the heart of lean and TPS? So when does a business go from starting lean to fully implementing lean? No process is perfect, the job is never done.
    As you’ve stated in your post, all these companies that have implemented portions of lean do see effects on the bottom line. Are these lean failures or successes?
    To me, these are successes, with the caveat that more work needs to be done, as it always does.
    Even a fully abandoned lean initiative may leave remnants of lean success at some level.

  6. Mark R Hamel says:


    Well said.

    I presume that the success rate is a bit higher than 1%. But, it is still pretty abysmal…and the reasons for failure are typically the same – starting with leadership.

    It kills me when folks engage in a half-hearted attempt at some bastardized version of lean (or fill in the blank), fail, and then blame it on the holistic business system. It can poison the minds of the countless people who were subject to and/or witnessed the failure.

  7. This “stat” has gotten a lot of attention, but there are two problems with it. First, it’s not a stat, it’s just an opinion or casual observation and not based on any structured research. Second, it doesn’t define “fail”.

    Many of us have used this opinion for quite a long time, but when we defined the 1%, it was that they became fundamentally different companies. They truly transformed themselves, permanently. They compete in new ways. That’s the level of success we DESIRE with all lean efforts, hence it’s not a success without it.

    But while that should be the aspirational goal, it’s not the only level of success. Of the companies that are at least trying to be successful at lean, the vast majority have a positive ROI for their efforts.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh

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  11. There are many causes to which the failure of the Lean or TQM or Six Sigma processes is attributed. Personally, I think they focus on isolated and timely improvements and not on a clear focus on what the organization needs to improve in order to achieve its customer value proposition and achieve its vision. All improvement processes must originate from your strategic plan guided and reviewed by management. I also believe that all strategic planning must be supported by projects, Lean or TQM or Six Sigma.

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