Why Lean Does Not Work – It’s the System!

I had been invited to facilitate a lean workshop with a large state agency. The division had been hammered during the recession with massive layoffs, forced retirements, huge loss of institutional knowledge but with little reduction in workload.


So, for four days I met with 18 front line managers and workers to document their processes, create value stream maps and find ways to eliminate non-value added work. At the end of the four days, we had two beautiful value stream maps on a wall, we had a beautiful spaghetti diagram that demonstrated that every invoice they paid had to pass through the financial managers desk seven times before it was processed. The last half day we spent designing 4 initiatives that would have significantly reduced the burden of low value work, allowed staff to go home on time, and improve customer value. There was nothing in these initiatives that required funding, or approval from the governor.


At the conclusion one of the participants grabbed the manager by the lapels of his sport coat, and while shaking him said this, if you don’t follow through with this don’t ever ask me to participate in something like this ever again!!! As a curtesy to the Department’s executive leadership, it was decided to run these initiatives by them, so they could then tell the Governor that they were implementing lean. This is where the projects died. Not one initiative was ever implemented. They killed them through simple neglect. Why?


Where executive leaders stupid? Nope, they included smart people with advanced degrees. Where they unkind and did not care about their staff. Nope, I believe they truly cared for their people. Unfortunately, in 25 years of consulting, I have seen this same thing happen dozens of times. I have also seen the opposite happen dozens of times. I am not alone. By some estimates 90% of all lean initiatives fail to produce any value at all, which means the other 10% must generate spectacular results. What is the problem? Was it the people or the system?

I’ve come to the conclusion it was/is the system. In this case it was a system that rewarded executive leadership for the proximity to the Governor. the Governor was the source of funding, professional positioning, and therefore there was no reward or process for taking ideas from those lower down the organizational ladder.

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