The Continuous Improvement Blog

How to avoid these 6 mistakes when implementing Lean

Written by Colin McArdle on 14 Mar 2018


Some of the world’s most successful companies - the likes of, Toyota, Nike, Amazon and General Electric - have all benefited from implementing Lean Management techniques and principles to drive efficiency.

Yet for every success story, there are many companies who have failed to see the value.

So have you failed to see results from Lean?

Or are you in the early stages of considering implementing Lean in your business and want to make sure you get the best return on investment?

If so, this blog post is for you. Here are 6 of the most common reasons Lean implementations fail, and how to avoid them.

1. No defined strategy

Before you embark on any business improvement programme, you need to know what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.

A clear strategy and well-defined vision is key to success. Identify the specific objectives you hope to achieve, and make sure they align with the strategic focus of the business so senior leaders and the C-suite get on board.

With a clear focus that is shared by everyone in the business, you’ll have more support behind you when faced with challenges.

2. Not paying enough attention to culture

One of the main reasons Lean implementations fail is because not enough focus is given to the cultural side - changing habits, ways of working, and belief systems. 

Your people will be the driving force behind Lean success. You need to create a culture where everyone in the business can see and embrace process improvement; to see waste and remove it.

You want people to question the way things are done and share their ideas for improvements so that your operations self-regulate to work more efficiently and effectively.

But how do you change the mindsets and behaviours of people who may have been part of your workforce for years? People who are used to the way things are, who may be resistant to change.

To ensure staff are engaged with change, you need to:

  • Give people a 'reason to believe' by clearly communicating the vision of your improved business.
  • ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ - so start small. Your organisation and its culture are unique and you need to learn how people respond to new ways of working.
  • Select a pilot area to show how people in your business can use lean to improve how they work every day.
  • Lean implementations are never perfect, so make sure you develop stories to explain challenges and how you overcame them.
  • Let the managers and teams own the Lean program by avoiding setting up a separate, perhaps centralised, Lean team.
  • Have structures, processes and systems in place to support change, such as change management training, concern escalation and activities linked to strategy.
  • Conduct assessments, at all levels, through observing meetings and problem-solving activities to ensure the right mindsets and behaviours are demonstrated, making sure senior leaders and managers are behaving in the new way.

3. Poor leadership

As with any business initiative, you need leaders who will own it and drive change, making the rest of the workforce feel engaged in the process.

Leaders should clearly communicate the vision and strategy so workers understand what is driving change. To do this, they first need to understand the existing culture, so they can build emotional commitment by appealing and responding to their needs.

Leaders also need to empower teams to act, provide feedback, and deliver recognition for progress and achievement. Through regular workplace observation, leaders need to provide a ‘safe’ environment where employees feel comfortable putting their hand up and saying “My problem is still not fixed. I keep asking but get no feedback - why?”.

4. Lack of training

Senior leaders and managers need to be trained in the fundamentals of Lean, so they know how to apply it correctly. This will enable them to facilitate project work and drive initiatives within their teams. And, operational staff need to be trained in new ways of working.

Without the right training, Lean implementations are likely to fail as soon as they encounter unexpected problems or obstacles.


5. Doing too much at once

If you jump right in and start making big changes across your entire operations, you risk overwhelming your staff, and your customers will suffer.

Using a staggered approach to roll out improvement initiatives means you can build momentum with quick wins. By setting aims that are easy to achieve, in bite-sized chunks, your workforce will see the positive impact of change early on. In turn, you’ll create a positive energy around further change.

6. Not thinking long-term

Improvements you make need to be sustainable. But how do you make change stick?

Standard operating procedures need to be updated and best practice documented, so new ways of working are properly instilled. On-going training and auditing of new processes will ensure teams are confident and following them correctly. Don’t forget about your direct staff – that’s the ones adding value! They are the ones carrying out processing, day-in-day-out, so give them opportunities to feedback on new processes so any problems that emerge can be resolved.

Perhaps most important is to communicate the impact of changes to everyone across the business. Consider posting ‘before and after’ metrics so they can see their hard work paying off.

In summary, making just one of these mistakes can significantly reduce the impact of your Lean programme. Success comes down to having a clear strategy and vision, focusing on your people and leadership, taking a staggered approach to implementation and making sure you have the right systems and procedures in place to make improvement sustainable.

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Topics: Business Improvement, six sigma, lean

Colin McArdle

Written by Colin McArdle

Colin McArdle, the Founder and Managing Director of Kaizen Kulture is a Lean and Six Sigma Master Black Belt who has over 30 years industry experience. Kaizen Kulture's mission is to be true to the ethos of continuous improvement.