Do Misconceptions About Lean Cause Many Initiatives to Fail?

At conferences, in magazine articles, and in books, we often hear of the benefits that Lean initiatives provide to organizations' efficiency and general workplace culture, but the failure rates are never comprehensively analyzed. In August, Cordell Hensley published an interesting new book, Lean Misconceptions: Why Many Lean Initiatives Fail and How You Can Avoid the Mistakes, that sheds light on why more than half of performance-improvement initiatives fail to achieve desired results.When I spoke with Cordell last week, I asked him: "What are the common mistakes that cause Lean initiatives to fail?” Here's the answer he provided:

The focus on removing waste is fundamental within Lean, but it should not be the only objective when beginning on your journey. Many organizations think simple: Lean = less waste. While this is true, it is like saying the TARDIS is just a police telephone box.

For example, I am always surprised by how few have heard of MURA (unevenness) or MURI (overburden). These are as, or potentially more, important than MUDA (waste). These other two create waste; and if you don’t focus on removing unevenness and overburden, then your efforts to reduce waste will be in vain. 

In addition, while removing or reducing waste is fundamental within Lean, I argue that it is too easy to ignore or skip the objective of creating capability. I’m not talking about getting a few experts in or training your leadership team but actively engaging everyone in the thinking behind what you’re trying to do.

Lean provides the impetus for challenging the status quo, for seeing every process as something that can be improved, including the improvement process itself. Arguably, improving processes is the easy bit, and identifying waste is relatively simple as well, but it is the change of focus of every employee to solving problems that only comes from a shift in organizational thinking. It is a shift from an organization where employees do as they’re told by management to one where they are engaged in making things better, for everyone, including the shareholders.

Today’s leaders seem to want an answer to their problem that they can buy “off the shelf.” This doesn’t exist! There is no silver bullet or panacea  that can fix  problems or improve performance for every business. The results they seek are readily available, but it takes effort, it takes learning, it takes a shift in paradigms.

Lean has been around for several decades. It evolved from research on Toyota followed by the application by hundreds if not thousands of organizations and their consultants. Many users and “experts” within organizations, however,  have modified and adjusted the thinking to suit their immediate needs. This has created misconceptions within the industry and has denigrated the term to little more than a process improvement technique. 

This evolution has, in most cases, reduced the potential that organizations can achieve and has sadly been used to put many thousands of people out of work. Throughout my book, I try to demonstrate a different view of Lean and the culture desired to enable organizations not only to improve their processes and systems but also to create the capability to learn and adapt to the ever-changing world in which they operate.

What do you think of Cordell's perspective? Have you been involved in a Lean initiative that has not lived up to expectations? What do you think are its shortcomings?