Barriers to a Lean Transformation

By on April 16, 2019
Barriers to a Lean Transformation

When Lean manufacturing succeeds it drives incredible improvements in product quality, productivity and profitability. It also fails all too often. What drives this disparity between Lean’s ability and its failure to deliver? I believe it’s largely explained by these two quotes, which are basic truths that many leaders fail to understand about change:

“The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
– Albert Einstein

“No problem is a problem.”
– Plant Manager, New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.

Too many leaders find it very difficult to accept the fact that their thinking must change if Lean is to succeed. Additionally, too many leaders hold a very negative view of the word “problem.” As a result, they go to great lengths to avoid talking about them. That’s why the plant manager at NUMMI, the joint venture of GM and Toyota in Fremont, Calif., had to tell supervisors he wanted them to talk about problems, not to pretend they didn’t exist.

My first introduction to Lean manufacturing (aka The Toyota Production System) was in 1986 when I was the lead developer of training for a firm contracted by NUMMI. And what an eye opener this experience was. Standing in vivid contrast to other automotive factories in which I had done work, NUMMI’s employees were upbeat. The cars they built – the Toyota Corolla and Geo Prism – had top quality ratings, and the plant was immaculate.

Since then I’ve experienced first-hand the transformative power of Lean manufacturing. I’ve seen a team spot a form of waste in a production process that drove savings in excess of $400,000 per year. I’ve seen a new employee spot waste in her company’s accounting department that resulted in savings of $65,000 a year. I’ve seen a company recover manufacturing space valued at $845,000. I’ve seen a company achieve a 49% increase in the productivity of their shipping department. I’ve been told by a company owner that if it wasn’t for Lean manufacturing, his company wouldn’t be in business.

Standing in vivid contrast to these examples of the power of Lean manufacturing, I’ve seen too many failures. And, like many of you, I’ve thought a lot about why some Lean transformations succeed while others fail.

And here’s what my experiences have taught me — the most common causes of Lean’s failure to deliver on its great promise:

  1. Mass production thinking: Not believing that workers can improve the way they do their work. Not trusting workers. Strongly adhering to a hierarchical structure that speaks loud and clear to all employees: that leaders lead and employees follow.
  2. Discouraging employee input: Holding the mentality that leaders think while employees work. Rejecting employee attempts to contribute to the improvement of work processes by creating barriers that limit their ability to contribute ideas. By words and/or actions, letting employees know that their thinking is not respected.
  3. Workers’ perceptions of limited personal impact: Having a workforce, many members of which doubt their ability to improve the way work is done. Creating a culture of dependency. Having a workforce noted for its passivity and the harboring of largely silent anger.
  4. Problem avoidance: Viewing problems as weaknesses to be hidden rather than viewing them as opportunities for improvement, providing the information needed to drive continuous improvement. Discouraging employees’ presentation of problems if they cannot simultaneously offer a recommended solution. Being content with the status quo.
  5. Low involvement of leaders: Having a leadership team that doesn’t get actively involved in their Lean transformation. Leaders who don’t accept the fact that their thinking created many of the weaknesses in production processes and that to be effective leaders of a Lean transformation, their thinking needs to change.
  6. Under-prepared first level supervisors: Having a cadre of first level supervisors who have not received adequate training and who don’t understand that Lean thinking and work processes will make their jobs easier, ridding them of the need to engage in continual firefighting and giving them the opportunity to spend more time engaging line workers in productive discussions on how to improve work processes. As a result of this, having too many supervisors who view Lean as a threat and, by their words and actions, undercut its implementation.
  7. Misaligned reward and recognition: Not using well-targeted, timely reward and recognition methods to support those changes in behavior needed to support a Lean transformation. Having leaders who believe that pay should be an adequate driver of high performance. It isn’t.
  8. Lack of standardized work for continuous improvement: Having employees at all levels who fail to understand that without standardized work, work processes cannot be improved. As a result, failing to develop standardized work instructions, or if they exist, failing to monitor their use.
  9. Too many cowboys, not enough pit crew members: Having too many employees who act out in ways that reflect the myth of the cowboy: extreme individualism coupled with an unwillingness to support teamwork. Too much “I’ll do it my way” thinking.

So, are there specific actions an organization can take that will gradually eliminate these barriers to a sustainable Lean transformation? Yes, and I describe them in an article I wrote recently entitled “Being in Control.”

And is there a first step each of us can take to remove these barriers? Yes, there is, and I’d describe it as “removing the blinders.” At the start of each day, remind yourself that each one of your employees craves the opportunity to make full use of their potential, just as you and I do. Periodically ask yourself as you move through the day if your behaviors are helping your fellow employees meet this need or if you’re doing things that squash it. And vow to change those personal behaviors that squash it.

When the blinders are removed, and specific steps are taken to unleash the full knowledge, intelligence and creativity of your employees, your Lean transformation will be sustainable.

I’ll never forget a comment made by a participant in one of my seminars. She said, “Nothing is more exciting than being able to put our creativity and knowledge to full use.” I’d add that nothing is more beautiful than observing an organization being transformed into a world-class competitor by unleashing the full potential of its employees. I saw the results of this type of transformation at NUMMI in 1986 and much more recently at clients of ours in the St. Louis region. It’s a great thing to see.

I’d very much appreciate knowing your perspectives on why Lean fails. Send your observations to me at I’ll share them in a future article. We have a lot to learn from each other.

St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group has a wide variety of training and coaching resources that will help unleash the full potential of your employees. To find out more about these resources, call Eric Whitehead at 314-539-5022 or George Friesen at 314-303-0612, and let’s schedule a time to talk. I’m confident you’ll find it time very well spent.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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