The Dark Side of Lean

Tell Us Your Lean Failure Stories

By Jon Miller Published on August 6th, 2007

Recently one of our consultants came back from a sales call having received the question from our prospective client “When has your firm failed in consulting engagements? Tell us your Lean failure stories.” Not having served as long as some of the rest of us at Gemba (and without the benefit of experiencing these failures), he was stumped.
Rather than have him fabricate failed consulting engagements, or tell stories from failures he was not involved with, we reflected on past failures and concluded that they could be explained in one of three general categories:
1) We let the client drive the car into the ditch. This happens when we accept client changes in scope, targets, priorities, etc. during project even though it was not best way, or even a safe way. This is why we insist on a Lean transformation plan that the client understands and supports through PDCA – regular checks and adjustment to the plan, rather than a sudden jerk at the steering wheel.
2) We let the wrong person drive. Whether it’s a question of consultant style, personality, or having said the wrong thing to a Director who walked into the room, sometimes the fit of the consultant and client is wrong. This is why we value the team approach so strongly.
3) We started driving even though the car did not have enough gas. No matter how thorough the current condition assessment, it seems there is always an important detail or two that is left out. Sometimes we are guilty of not digging deep enough, or asking that one extra question, and at other times clients are unaware or not completely forthcoming about cash flow, profitability, management capability, business outlook or other issues. The changes brought on by a Lean transformation expose these things pretty quickly, like trying to race up a mountain on an empty tank of gas.
The analogy of driving a car seemed to fit. Having just returned from a road trip, I can attest to the fact that most of us would never drive a car this way. Yet we do business this way. Why?
Tell us your lean failure stories, but tell us using the automobile as a metaphor, as in the examples above. We will pick three winners at random and send you an Office 5S Quick Guide from of Kaizen Products. Answers posted before noon PST on August 14, 2007 are eligible for the prize draw.

  1. Andrea

    August 8, 2007 - 1:59 pm

    I’m not sure if this counts, since it hasn’t failed yet, (I just have a bad feeling about it!)
    So far the way we’re looking at implementing Lean has us motoring down the highway with the engineer still under the hood! Several of the organizational Black Belts have found opportunities for Lean improvements during their Six Sigma projects, and have essentially been teaching themselves how to apply some tools and thinking while a nationwide training plan in Lean is still being designed.
    It’s an odd situation, since we don’t want to overlook the benefits Lean can bring to the Six Sigma projects, but we are also wary that we’re using tools out of context and without any familiarity or coaching.
    I’m looking forward to other comments, this is an interesting challenge!

  2. Allison

    August 13, 2007 - 5:03 pm

    About four years ago, the company that I work at started to drive down the lean journey without a clear direction of where we were heading. We had many outside influences telling us which direction was the ‘best’ to take, however we were not sure who the driver of the car was and where we wanted to go. At that point, some riders didn’t even believe that lean was a path that was necessary to take. If you don’t know where you want to end up, then any path will do. However if you have a clear goal in mind, then you will be able to determine the best paths to get there.
    We have now taken some time to determine where it is we want to go with our lean journey, and who the driver/s will be. We’ve also communicated to the rest of our employees where we’re going….so they are now along for the ride and are not asking…”are we there yet?” They now know that this is a journey we will all be taking together and it will be a never ending contiunous effort.

  3. Brad

    August 13, 2007 - 5:37 pm

    Early in my career, I drove a team of operators down the highway of continuous improvement. We were all on board the bus, heading in the same direction. What an exciting ride! Some RCA identified some key issues, and the team developed a very creative solution for the pareto-identified main cause. We pulled into a rest stop on our journey to brief management on our trip progress. Sadly, we were told that we had been driving down a road that upper management had already decided was closed as an option. The air was instantly let out of our tires, and the team lost traction and became stuck in the mud. The lesson for me was to always make sure that you have a map (charter) to clearly show the boundaries before staring out on the CI journey.

  4. nate

    April 3, 2008 - 9:15 am

    We have been doing lean for 5 years and recently increased production by 25 percent..we have put 5s to the wayside, with the excuse that if we do 5s we will drop in production!!!! BULL any suggestions on how to deal with this..our plant manager wont discipline someone who is making 70 percent of the units..

  5. Jon Miller

    April 5, 2008 - 11:50 am

    Hi Nate,
    What you have is a classic case of “declaring victory too soon” after implementing some lean tools and seeing performance improve. These improvements are most likely not sustainable. While there may be times when 5S gets a little worse because you are too busy to put time into it each day, the attitude that it’s ok to not follow 5S standards because someone is making their numbers is a slippery slope. Or perhaps such standards don’t exist, and 5S is seen just as a tool and not as an essential daily practice.
    The change in policy needs to start with the plant manager understanding lean better. It’s not all about results, it’s also about process and practice to get those results, and 5S adherence or lack thereof is an early indicator in this area.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.