Why 3 Out Of 4 Companies Fail With Lean (And The Characteristics Of Success)


Lean is beautiful, but it’s apparently very hard for organizations to successfully “become lean.” If you were to google the issue right now, you’d probably find failure rates like these:

Although we don’t know where these websites get their data from, it’s clear that the odds are not in your favor in becoming lean. Perhaps now is a good time to suggest that “narrow is the way and difficult the path that leads to lean.” Most organizations fail to enter into it, or fail to stick with it.

In this article we’re going to explore three reasons why companies don’t become lean. It’s actually inspired by a famous parable1 on the issue of transformation.

Failure #1: Undervaluing Lean

This reason is a simple one and it accounts for those organizations that pass lean by without interest or effort. Lots of organizations don’t become lean simply because they see no value or application for it.

Simply put: they don’t convert because they don’t believe!

The word can be spoken about lean but these organizations take no interest and would rather place their confidence in something else.

Failure #2: Treating Lean As A Shortcut To Success

Now we’re talking about organizations that hear the testimony of lean, believe it, and implement it. But this first category of failure is for those organizations that view lean as a shortcut to success or otherwise underestimate what it costs to become lean.

It’s absolutely true that if you’re going to do lean, you have to “count the cost,” because nothing could be more costly! We don’t mean this in financial terms. We mean it in terms of what it will require of you in personal change and transformation.

Even lean maniac Paul Akers says to not do lean until you are “1000% sure” it is the right direction.

So this category of failure is for those organizations that get excited at the promise of lean results, and then abandon ship as soon as the journey proves more challenging than they realize.

Organizations that view lean like this–a shortcut to success–often underestimate the massive undertaking it is to actually become lean. You can’t cheat the process; lean is not a shortcut to success.

If that’s your perspective and value-system, you’ll be defeated with lean even before getting started.

Failure #3: Regarding Lean As Another Addition

This category of failure represents those organizations that regard lean as a nice addition and not a fundamental change in thought and action. Lean doesn’t work like this because lean is a paradigm shift. You cannot add it as an addition.

When it’s an addition, lean doesn’t take root in an organization in a way that changes culture. This leaves it vulnerable to being choked out by other business initiatives, priorities, and crises.

This is what people call the “flavor of the month”–a new addition that comes and goes without ever requiring deep fundamental change. Instead, lean has to be here to stay and become the central operating system of the organization.

In general, it would be better for organizations to be either all-in or all-out with lean. Don’t take it on as an addition, or at least recognize what you’re doing.

There’s nothing wrong with sampling lean tools and not requiring cultural change. Just don’t be deceived in thinking lean is the central thing when it really isn’t.

Characteristics Of Success With Lean

Lean only takes root in good soil. In our experience and observation there are three things that make the soil of an organization “good.” Perhaps there’s more, but these three characteristics of organizations certainly cover a lot of ground (pun intended).

They take lean in deeply.

Lean cannot be a shallow addition; it must be embraced deeply. These organizations live the idea of “everyone, every day” literally. They take lean seriously and make no excuses. They also are open to offense and are willing to see and do things another way. This leads us to the next characteristic…

They take lean in humbly.

You’ve got to be either humble or desperate to be successful with lean. (Desperation is simply humility when the stakes are high). Lean requires change, and change is only accepted by the humble. The proud have nothing to change; therefore, lean cannot help them.

They take lean in simply.

If someone makes lean complicated, run away! Because at its core, lean is simple. Let it be easy enough for anyone to do it. Then you’ll find success. You’ll also find passion and momentum.


1The “famous parable” is none other than the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. The seeds on the path are those organizations that don’t receive lean. They fundamentally don’t value it. The seeds on the rocky ground are those organizations that get excited about lean results but have no depth of commitment to make it through difficult changes. The seeds among thorns are those organizations that allow other ideas, priorities, and fads to choke out lean’s effectiveness.