The Truth about Why Lean Programs Fail

A recent white paper has the LEI (Lean Enterprise Institute) folks admitting that only 2% of lean programs succeed.  Yet, with the masses of people that make up the lean community you would think that number was 98% of lean programs succeeding.  I was surprised that the number of failures wasn’t higher than 98%.

This begs the question of why the hype for a fad with such a high failure rate?  Shouldn’t it go the way of other fads that we at least had fun with like the Yo-Yo, Klackers and yes . . . even disco.

Jeff Liker and Mike Rother now have a new Japanese term for us to learn – Kata.  Surely an attempt to shore up the missing element of lean called thinking.  Why is it always a new Japanese word?

The thinking though is still lost on process improvement, routines and standardization.  Not to leave out “target conditions” that Liker and Rother claim that a “clear path” to the target makes it OK to use results management and extrinsic motivators vs. those that have an unclear path need an iterative approach devoid of results and extrinsic motivation.  W. Edwards Deming must be looking down and shaking his head with such foolishness.

The truth is lean doesn’t work because it is based on copying – something Dr. Deming warned us about many times.  We can not copy Toyota or the Japanese. Organizations and governments require more than copying to get ahead or they will always be behind . . . You can’t catch up copying it requires new and better thinking.

We have our own fundamental thinking problem is the US.  Addressing this requires understanding our industrialized, mass-production design of work and how it works against improvement. In service, manufacturing has different problems and perpetuating poor thinking by a fad that succeeds 2% or less is certainly the wrong direction.

When the chips are down . . . the buffalo move on.  It’s time to move on to better thinking.

Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Read his articles at Quality Digest and his column for  Download free from “Understanding Your Organization as a System” and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about our intervention services at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at LinkedIn at

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