Why lean efforts fail: Views from a 25-year plant leader

Curtiss Quirin
Tags: lean manufacturing, talent management, six sigma

If you think about it, there are really only a few companies that can be considered lean: Toyota, Honda and Danaher. The rest of the companies that embark on a lean journey, in my opinion, seem to only dabble with lean tools when they are convenient, and then the efforts fade away over time. It’s surprising because lean thinking has been mainstream for more than a decade and there are thousands of people who have been trained and understand lean principles. Jim Womack and the Lean Enterprise team have done a great job as thought leaders; and in the book “The Toyota Way”, Jeffrey Liker has broken the Toyota Production System down to its essence.  

I visit many companies each year, and even in some of the worst, I am often surprised to find someone there who has had lean training. They are usually able to talk about waste or single-piece flow, but I leave wondering what happened. Why didn’t the lean activity continue? Why was there no follow-through? Many times during plant tours, you will see evidence of lean tucked in the corner or off in the back. I wish I had a dollar for every unused andon signal, heijunka board or employee glass wall that I have seen set aside and gathering dust.

What always amazes me is how gracious Toyota is about sharing its philosophy, thoughts and lean tools to anyone willing to visit its plants and listen. The company is safe, knowing that the knowledge it provides to others will either never be acted upon or will be started but not sustained. I know when I revisit Toyota plants each year that the same standard work and continuous improvement processes are in place.

At most companies, lean is usually introduced into the manufacturing organization and gains some quick wins using common tools out on the shop floor. However, the effort eventually gets bogged down since it requires support from the other functions as the implementation process moves to the next level. Top leadership either does not understand it or is unwilling to embrace the philosophy. Eventually, the lean activity fades away as knowledgeable people attrite over time, the operations team changes or short-term priorities become the order of the day.

Other problems can take their toll on businesses during their lean journey, such as failure to address fundamental structural issues. After years of learning from Toyota, General Motors had some of the leanest factories in the world, but it failed to address an uncompetitive wage and benefit structure and the need to market compelling products. Consequently, the lean plants were shut down due to lack of demand.

Over the years, I have observed some of the reasons for this lean fanfare-and-fade phenomenon. You can probably add your own thoughts to this list, but here is my best shot:

However, when you really dig into it, the basic reason why the implementation of lean fails at most companies boils down to culture. Not Japanese vs. American, but the corporate culture and how the company is led from the top. What most leaders fail to realize is that lean is a management philosophy, not simply a collection of tools for material and information flow or problem solving. And, most corporate leaders either do not understand its value or do not have the patience and control to implement it. Slow, steady continuous improvement does not lead to immediate recognition, quick promotions or soaring share prices. Successful implementation requires something that is very rare in both people and organizations: constancy of purpose. However, if you stick with it, it is amazing how the little day-to-day improvements add up over time; after a few months, you look back and realize how much has been accomplished.

The problem is that at most companies, managers are still looking for the “big bang” project or turbocharged effort of their employees. They all sound good and come with great fanfare or personal sacrifice, but they are usually not sustainable.

I often remember meeting employees during my visits to Toyota and Honda plants. I expected to meet really outstanding individuals. Those companies do employ good people, but what I found were people like myself working in a structure that elevated their efforts and supported their success. The companies created an environment that allowed ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results over time by having consistent direction and standardized work processes, both in the office and in the shop. Citing one of the principles of W. Edwards Deming, their success was more dependent on process than the effort of an individual person.

About the author:
Curtiss Quirin is a business executive with more than 25 years of experience leading manufacturing operations. During his career at General Motors, Delphi and The Stanley Works, he was permitted a wide scope of autonomy directing many diverse functions, including: manufacturing, industrial engineering, sales and marketing, finance, and supply chain management.

His lean experience stems from his Toyota Production System training from both Toyota senseis and at the NUMMI assembly plant. He has deployed lean techniques on the factory floor – from single-cell kaizen workshops to improving the value stream across multiple plants. Factories that he has managed are suppliers to Toyota, Honda, General Motors, International Truck and many aftermarket customers.

As the plant manager of a large generator factory, he was able to reverse a plant loss of $22 million to a profit of $8 million in two years. This was accomplished by utilizing value stream mapping, decoupling operations, cellular manufacturing, establishing managed buffers, kanban material flow and standardized work.

As a practitioner/consultant, he has implemented and taught the Toyota Production System at companies in a wide variety of industries, including Alberto Culver, American Axle, Art Iron, Canyon Creek Cabinets, Parker Chelsea, Pentair, Werner Ladder and Signature Seating.

Curtiss is a certified Green Belt Six Sigma problem-solver, and has written and published several articles on lean.