Executive Failure

Business Executives: 5 Reasons Why Lean Efforts Fail

Executive Failure

Whether it’s in manufacturing literature or in conversations with others, “executive buy-in” is frequently named the most important requirement for success with lean.

If you’re an executive and reading this article, you’re probably not surprised to hear that. You’ve probably heard it before, too, if you’ve spent any time around lean thinking and strategies for implementation.

Perhaps you’re different and one of those extraordinary executives who will see lean through to the end. If that’s you, then we salute you!

Even so, the facts remain the same: a large population of lean practitioners report that executive leadership is the biggest resistance to success with lean.

(At Lean Smarts we’re also collecting data on this issue. So far it appears to confirm this reality. You can take the lean quiz here to offer your input).

In an effort to help all organizations find success with lean, we’re dedicating this article to five reasons lean efforts fail—so that you can avoid them!

1. A Decision Is Made To Add Lean Without Subtracting Anything Else

“We can always do more” is a mentality at many businesses and especially at small businesses. The problem with adding more is that you and your organization have a limited capacity for more. If you add lean and subtract nothing else, it’s only a matter of time until lean is in competition with other pre-existing priorities. That’s when your organization will find out if you are truly committed to lean.

So here’s two great questions to ask yourself: “What capital, personnel, and time are you budgetting for lean?” and, “How are you going to protect the resources you commit to lean from other crises and priorities?”

Lean cannot be “an addition” to your business. It must become the central thing.

2. Numbers And Metrics Of Success Are Over Emphasized

The late Dr. W. Edwards Deming warned us about the consequences of quotas, numbers, and management by objective (point 10 from his “14 points“). His point was simple: if you demand zero defects or higher productivity metrics, the problem is that that’s what you’ll get! People will hide defects, fudge numbers, compete with other departments, and get you the numbers you’ve asked for. It’s human nature, and it’s because numbers can inadvertently create fear (rather than drive fear out, which is Deming’s 8th point). Yes, lean will deliver huge cost savings and extraordinary quality. But if that is your only motivation, you’re unlikely to get it.

You need a motive that is higher and purer than numbers. Do lean because of a firm belief that it’s the right thing to do and you have no other option.

If you don’t have resilient faith alongside your commitment to lean, you’ll be hardpressed to find steadfastness and perseverence when your first quarter results aren’t what you expected.

3. Frugality Kills The Investment

Many small businesses are amazingly frugal. Frugality isn’t a bad thing, but if you make only a cheap investment in lean, you’re unlikely to get amazing results. We’re not suggesting you go get a consultant–that’s not the point. The point is this: if you truly believe in lean, commit your money and your time to making it a reality. Pretend a “commitment appraiser” came and appraised the value of your commitment to lean. What is your commitment worth? Is it worth 90 minutes a week of employee time? Is it worth a few hundred or a few thousand dollars to get the expert training or expert help that you need?

We’re all about DIY lean implementation at Lean Smarts, but that’s not an excuse to be cheap in your investment in lean.

4. No One Slows Down The Growth Engine

We get it: growth is what keeps small businesses alive. It’s what took you from your first dollar to your millionth dollar and beyond. If you’re reading this you’re probably good at growth too. Otherwise, you wouldn’t still be in business today.

But here’s the problem: if you don’t slow down your growth engine, you may end up steamrolling your very feeble lean initiative.

As huge sales deals continue to get closed, demands will be made of manufacturing to produce. It may even be said, “It’s nice that you’re learning lean, but this order has to get out the door.”

It’s true that too much growth can kill a company. It’s also true that too much growth can kill lean when first planted in an organization. If it’s going to take root, “better growth” has to take precedence for a time–not just “more growth.”

Slowing the growth engine, when necessary, has to come from the top.

5. Turnover Is High & Labor Is Too Cheap

This one is related to being too frugal. We were recently reminded of it by a fellow lean practitioner.

“Respect for people” is at the heart of lean culture. If you pay your people too little to keep them long term, you’re going to have an incredibly hard time making progress with lean. Lean doesn’t take root in an organization when there’s a revolving door of employees. Training new people is too expensive and time-consuming, and those that are hired are often there only for a pay check–nothing more. So if you want to build a quality organization, you have to find a way to retain quality employees.

A Lesson From Good To Great

Good to Great by Jim Collins is a favorite at Lean Smarts. Collins identifies differentiating characteristics that make all the difference between organizations that are just good and those that are truly great.

One of those characteristics is the ability to “confront the brutal facts.” If you’re going to be successful with lean, you have to be able to confront brutal facts. You have to be able to come to your senses and course-correct when your good lean intentions are being compromised or led astray.

A corollary to this concept that we promote at Lean Smarts is this:

you can go as far as your humility will take you.

We firmly believe that it’s the humble (and the desperate) that find success with lean. This isn’t a sexy sales pitch. But it is the truth. Lean manufacturing will put the humility of your organization to the test.