Why Lean Doesn’t Work

September 14, 2022
  • Headshot of Audie M Penn, member of the Lean Certification Alliance Oversight and Appeals Committee.
    By Audie Penn
    Audie Penn Consulting

Author: Audie M Penn, LGC, LSC, LBC, is a member of the Lean Certification Alliance Oversight and Appeals Committee. He is principal of Audie Penn Consulting, a firm specializing in the deployment of Operational Excellence. His focus is executing Strategy Deployment and training executives and local plant staff to execute process improvements and achieve targeted results.

Many businesses and people have attempted to implement lean and come to disappointing outcomes. Yet those who do succeed claim significant business improvements. What does it mean to fail an implementation, and what is really the root cause of these attempts that fall short?

When lean is successful, a culture of resilience is often part of the experience. There are three phases through which sustained practice proceeds: reliable, responsive, and resilient. To pass through these phases requires a compete deployment. Most of the failed attempts are not incorrect in their work, but rather, incomplete in the implementation of the systems.

Being part of the Lean Certification Alliance Oversight and Appeals Committee, I have the benefit of understanding the breakdown of practitioners across the three levels we certify (Lean Bronze, Lean Silver and Lean Gold). A vast majority of the practitioners we certify are at the Bronze level. This is the tactical level of practice. This is the process improvement work with mapping and the application of the tools to change methods and outcomes. This is a small portion of the complete lean deployment.

The next level is the Silver level, or integrative level. This is where the management system influences performance. Execution is about focus and attention. The PDCA governance of processes must take place consistently if our performance is to be consistent. When the management systems are missing, a large portion of the complete lean implementation is missing.

The third layer at which we certify is the Gold level, or strategic level. The relationship among the executive staff is typically focused on three key elements – strategy, resource allocation, and culture. The strategic practitioner holds all three of these ideas in place and invites the management systems to interpret and interact with these three concepts. The management systems then invite the tactical levels to improve processes until the performance of the organization is in alignment with the strategic level.

The Gold level is focused on strategy, business results, and culture. Just like what we see with lean certification, most implementations are stuck at the tactical level with heavy use of tools and techniques. As organizations mature, it takes a significant commitment to evolve into integrative lean connecting far reaching value streams. The hardest, and most rewarding, work is strategic. Impacting the culture - the hearts and minds of your employees - to embrace this process; and for leaders to create the vision and action whereby people clearly see their role in the transformation.

To round out our implementations we need to see more presence from practitioners capable of integrative and strategic lean - the Silver and Gold levels of certification. We need stronger relationships within the lean organization between the tactical, integrative, and strategic levels of practice. One of the best documents to illustrate the importance of and the risk of not having these relationships in place is the Competencies and Behavior Model. Reading through this document helps our practitioners identify what is missing when their own projects and deployments are stalled. Identifying what is missing and then working to bring that into play has kickstarted many projects and initiatives for many of our certified members.

If you have ever attempted to implement lean or participated in the implementation and fallen short of the expected outcomes, reviewing this document will help you identify what was missing and how it went wrong. I also encourage you to explore the requirements of certification for your own organization. It takes a little bit of time and effort, but the results I have experienced from my own certification have paid dividend after dividend, and do not see the end of that return on investment anywhere in the near term. My greatest desire is for many people to experience the benefits and results of a complete lean implementation, and to know the difference between incorrect and incomplete.

Learn more about Lean Certification and how it benefits individuals, teams, and entire organizations.

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