More and more companies are looking to implement continuous improvement or ‘lean’ business systems in order to remove waste from their processes and drive improvement activities. However simply saying that the business is going to be lean doesn’t wave a magic wand. Lean isn’t something you can just do for the short term and by next quarter you’ve turned into Toyota. Also merely picking some improvement tools and ‘rolling them out’ to a site isn’t going to work. In fact leaders are the key to any success, and leadership behaviour is especially important for those that have direct interaction with the shop floor or other front line activities (although I would argue that every level of leader should have some level of contact).

Considering the concept of lean as described by Womack and Jones has been around for over twenty years you would think that we would know how to get it right by now. But the fact that more than ninety percent of lean implementations fail, says otherwise. The reason that lean persists despite the failure rates is because done right, the results are so alluring.

From my experience there are several reasons why lean fails and many of them are associated with managerial behaviour and actions. If you recognise any of the reasons below in either yourself or management team, it may be time to take a step back and adjust your thinking and/or behaviours if you want to be successful.


When we aspire to move upwards in our organisation, we should understand our leadership behaviour is being monitored constantly. As leaders it is easy to think we know everything, especially if we have worked our way up through the business. `I know how this process is done, no need to involve anyone from the shop floor.’ If you are the person that works on a process everyday then you are the best person to talk about it, not someone who did the work 10 years ago, or used to be team leader in that area. The people that perform the activity understand the problems and frustrations, and so must be involved in improvement activities and events if we want to the solutions to be the right ones. Also, involvement in resolving problems means that solutions are more likely to be taken on board. If people think that things are being imposed on them, they are more likely to show resistance, even if they are the right things to do.


I have been stood in very uncomfortable meetings before where the negative attitude towards lean has been forged over years of bad leadership behaviour and not being listened to. If we are asking people to be involved and tell us their problems (and potential solutions) then we have to listen to them. Things like not ordering easily affordable equipment that has been recommended, or simply ignoring suggestions altogether can really turn people off.


It is easy for leaders to tell others to carry out projects or events, but in order for them to be successful leaders should be involved. I don’t just mean turning up to the close out meeting. Taking part helps leaders to understand the problems and why certain conclusions were drawn. Don’t go to events with predetermined solutions, use it as learning experience the same as everyone else. You don’t have to go to every lean event, but being a full time team member on at least some sends a positive message that lean is important.


leadership behaviour, seagull

This is related to event involvement and was a term coined by an Operational Excellence Manager in the US. Basically, don’t turn up to meetings and events when people have been working hard on solving problems and sh*t all over their solutions – arguably, the worst kind of leadership behaviour. It undermines people and the process itself. It can be really demotivating for people, so if you want to discuss solutions and your ideas, actually take part in the event.


‘We can’t stop production to sort this out.’ Most likely the reason you’re so busy is because you’re having to fire fight a load of different problems. Actually stopping to fix some properly will give you less stress in the long term. No sticking plasters, but actual root cause problem solving is the way forward. If you are busy running around fixing the same problem you had two months ago, and three months before that, then is it really a crazy idea to take some time to fix it to the point it doesn’t come back? Is this the type of leadership behaviour you want your followers to emulate?


If we want to encourage continuous improvement and root cause problem solving, then we need to stop rewarding people who don’t demonstrate these things. For example, if someone gets praise and a pat on the back for firefighting and ‘saving the day’, then that only encourages that kind of behaviour. Reward those that do the right things and hold those accountable who don’t. Start recognising people in the business that demonstrate the lean behaviours.


This relates to all things already mentioned above. If you say the company is going to be lean then you need to behave like it. This means taking part, allowing others the time to take part and rewarding those demonstrating the right behaviours. If in meetings about production problems you say things like ‘just rinse the bastards!’ (yep, a ridiculous yet true example of what operations managers have said) as a solution to an arrears problem, then you aren’t exactly getting it, nor encouraging others to do so.


People will occasionally make mistakes, or come up with solutions that aren’t exactly right. But if we trust teams of people to experiment and come up with solutions we are driving the right culture. The whole company is not going to implode if one small experimental solution only yields a 30% improvement as opposed to the 70% we were aiming for. We also need to remember that 95% of people want to and will do the right things for the business, so we shouldn’t manage it in a way that expects the behaviour of the 5%.


If you make lean about headcount it will fail. Imagine if someone said to you, ‘we’re going to do lean to reduce headcount’, would you take part thinking your job was at risk…probably not. This includes talking about not replacing people after retirement etc., the message people get is the same. Lean should be used to increase value to the customer and give us the potential to expand and grow our business.

These are just some of the ways that lean can be held back within a company. Remember that the company should not be aiming to ‘do’ lean but instead become lean.

To find out more about how the Accelerated Improvement Model can help your business to grow, and improve.

Please contact

Doug Allen, Executive Director doug@supplierdevelopment.com

Anna Lavender-Moore, Director anna@supplierdevelopment.com