Five Reasons Why It’s Hard to Stay Lean

By Jon Miller Updated on September 25th, 2020

Many organizations find that they don’t always sustain the gain they make from continuous improvement activity. Over the long-term, this is one of the greatest challenges to keeping management committed to building a Lean culture. It’s not hard to make quick gains with Lean. But it is hard to stay Lean. Here are five reasons why.


1. The rate of improvement slows as you improve.

Gains from rapid improvement workshops, employee improvement suggestions or other improvement projects are easier at first than a few years in. It stands to reason that there is more low-hanging fruit on the tree at the start of picking than later. When the rate of improvement slows, the resources spent on maintaining Lean systems may be questioned and reduced, with backsliding as the inevitable result.

2. We make improvements that we can’t live with for the long haul.

It could be that we redesign workflows without solving deeper systemic problems. It could be that we mandate daily performance management systems without good ways to escalate and address problems. It could be changes are forced on people and therefore resisted or rejected by the prevailing culture. If we have reason to suspect that the gains won’t sustain, they probably won’t, unless we address them.

3. Our brains conspire against us.

Part of human nature is to find ways to expend less energy. The gains we make from improvement may cause us to become complacent, lazy, proud and defensive of what we’ve accomplished, or to relax our vigilance. On a practical level this leads to avoidance of more difficult and systemic issues, building up stock or slack in our system or even a false belief that we are “done” with Lean, causing us to neglect its upkeep.

4. How much we add is more important than how much we eliminate.

The focus of Lean tends to be on cutting out wasted effort, reducing inputs, trimming excess inventory, eliminating errors, generally doing a better job safely with less time and effort. But this is far from enough. The customers we choose to serve, strategic objectives we select, the policies we communicate, the products we launch, the new equipment or capabilities we buy, the forecasted demand we prepare to meet, who we hire and promote – when such decisions are bad they quickly wipe out years of built-up improvements. The way to counter this is to expand continuous improvement across all areas of the organization, making no decision or process off-limits to Lean principles.

5. Regular practice plays a key role in maintaining a Lean culture.

Rituals, daily practices, routines, reminders and reinforcement of good habits are what keep cultures strong. Even when practice doesn’t appear to show direct results, it helps prevent poor decision-making and adding waste back into our systems.

Lean and Fitness are Lifestyle Commitments

These five reasons were inspired by the five realities of our biology that makes it difficult to keep weight off, from an NPR article. They are

1. Metabolism slows when you lose weight
2. If you choose to try to lose weight, make changes that you can live with for the long haul
3. Hormones in your brain conspire to make you hungrier when you lose weight
4. To lose weight, what you eat is more important than how much you exercise
5. On the other hand, exercise seems to play a big role in maintaining a lower weight

Lean is unfortunately named. Lean management is not about shedding waste, lowering inventory or streamlining processes. Neither is weight loss about losing weight. Both are much more about making lifestyle changes based on science and a deep commitment to our long-term ideals of health and wellness.

  1. Terry Niemuth

    March 10, 2020 - 8:22 am

    Thanks for sharing as I have seen companies begin the journey and some do stop as others continue.
    I’m going to share this

    • David Verble

      March 13, 2020 - 11:29 am

      Jon – thank you for this insightful piece of step back and reflect on our efforts. My spin on it is that we can’t stay lean because lean isn’t a destination; it’s a continuous pursuit.

    • Jon Miller

      March 15, 2020 - 7:40 pm

      Great point David. We can’t stay Lean because there’s no “there” to stay, it’s a state of moving forward.

    • Jon Miller

      March 15, 2020 - 7:41 pm

      Glad you found it usefl Terry


    March 13, 2020 - 11:31 am

    This article addresses many complacency accumulation over the time leading to plateau in performance. Our team observation is by keep revisiting continuous improvement fundamentals in all processes will accomplish culture change-along with training of new hires.

    • Jon Miller

      March 15, 2020 - 7:39 pm

      Indeed Harry. Keep revisiting the CI fundamentals everywhere!

  3. Beau Keyte

    March 15, 2020 - 1:46 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jon. I enjoyed the article and the weight reduction analogy we can all relate to. I thought it might be helpful to expand/comment on a bit on each of your points from my different experiences and perspective. Specifically:

    1) I have seen cases of the rates of improvement increasing as time goes on within some of my clients and have read/heard about other examples. The best way my clients have found a way to keep the improvements coming is to focus on value creation as opposed to waste reduction.

    2) Improvements we can’t live with makes me think of two things: first, who’s stretching us this way on these recommendations (maybe not the people who have to live with the change) and what don’t we understand about continuous improvement? How are these “improvements” or “mandates” tested by those who must live within the new process in such a way as to ensure everyone in the process gets to be part scientist and have active input before the first “solution” is codified? If we are serious about this, we should treat each successful iteration as something we will live with until we learn more and iterate again (or get a new operational goal). As an aside, it’s been my experience that mandates are most often solutions without the knowledge of what problem they are trying to solve (and a way to prove/disprove that is has been solved). The leaders who pursue mandates are wasting and misdirecting precious resources with a low probability of success.

    3) We SHOULD be making work easier. I think it would be great for everyone to have a normal work week working towards creating a more competitive position and adding value to everyone around them. We have been overburdened for years, and much of this energy is not in the best interest of the customer or company. It seems that there are many companies that treat Lean as a onetime project as opposed to a permanent shift to thinking and acting differently. Leader expectations are critical: those who focus on using Lean thinking to continue to drive/support strategic opportunities in order to put them at the top of the market 2 -5 years out are those who really do well.

    4) You state your point well, I would only add a different way to say it from my personal experiences and learnings. Many of us have migrated from thinking Lean is a waste reduction exercise to being a competitive way of acting and thinking. That being said, many companies still see this as cost cutting exercises even if cost cutting isn’t the most important strategic thing to do. I simply see Lean as a way to challenge and realign the capacity of a company to be an amazing force in the markets they serve. Some (and only some) of this gap can be addressed using “Lean” efforts. It always has been, and always will be, a challenge with how we strategically use our resource capacity: machines, people, and intellect.

    5) Great point! From a broader perspective I see your examples as necessary for any big change in an organization, not just Lean changes! New behaviors and habits are the glue that keeps it all together and the culture moving forward, regardless of what your transformation is.

    Thanks so much for putting your thoughts out there. They are valuable and have made me think more about what I’m learning over the years!

    • Steve

      March 15, 2020 - 4:05 pm

      Beau, I completely agree with you on item #1. The low-hanging-fruit theory is a mental limiter and does not have to be reality. In over a decade of growing the Lean Sigma program at Chevron, leaders kept asking the same question, but the reality was that the average and median value delivered from improvement teams just kept increasing. This was attributed to a focus on output. You can only save as much as you spend, but the sky is the limit on the upside. Improvement can be a strategy for growth. Steve

    • Jon Miller

      March 15, 2020 - 7:38 pm

      Hi Beau. Thanks to sharing your experiences adding to the conversation. Much appreciated.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.