/The story of a lean transformation failure
lean failure

The story of a lean transformation failure

lean failureFEATURE – Too often we tend to focus on trying to replicate success, rather than analyze failure. Yet, learning from mistakes is a fundamental principle in lean. This account of a transformation gone south offers an insightful critique of lean.

Words: Dan Riley, writer and blogger, The Nobby Works

When a large outside consultancy firm brought lean to the place where I had been employed for 13 years, it landed with all the subtlety of a shock and awe campaign. The disruption to the workplace was alarming and ultimately counterproductive.

I say this as one of the few people at the company who had been familiar with lean due to my long-time friendship with Michael Ballé and my predisposition for lean by virtue of what I knew of Michael’s success with it as documented in his book The Gold Mine: A Novel of Lean Turnaround.

So sudden and disorienting were the changes brought to our company in the name of lean that I found myself in contact with Michael from the start to confirm the validity of the lean practices coming our way in such rapid succession.

I believe that many of the bad turns our company took under our lean initiative were due to the specific business model of the outside consultants hired to bring lean through our doors. I’ve documented those that I witnessed first hand in my book Look Before You Lean: How a Lean Transformation Goes Bad – A Cautionary Tale by Employee X. For the purposes of this article I will try to focus on issues that complicated our company’s lean transformation that may not be unique to the consultants we hired to lead that transformation.

It seems that a methodology that aims for an ultimate goal of continuous improvement would best unfold in an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary manner. On my first visit to Planet Lean, I noticed that Jim Womack had already addressed the question of taking an evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary approach to bringing lean into a workplace. In The Pace of Change: Evolution or Revolution he discusses kaikaku (revolution) vs. kaizen (evolution) and questions the advisability of leading with the revolutionary approach. Allow me to augment his more authoritative conclusion from my position as both a lean gadfly and the subject of a somewhat disruptive lean transformation.

I don’t know that many employers are aware of this essential truth – so it is not surprising that outside consultants would be unaware of it – but the one thing employees value above all else (even above their safety, I dare say) is workplace stability. This encompasses stability across the board – their company’s future, their paychecks, their assigned tasks, their supervisors, their co-workers, their workspace, their schedules. Anyone who presumes to disrupt that stability should take the metaphor of whacking a beehive with a stick very seriously. However much one thinks the beehive deserves a good whacking or might be better off with a good whacking, it is an open invitation to unintended consequences and letting matters fall quickly out of hand.

This is all especially true in a company such as the one where I worked, which had such a long tradition of making change at such a glacial pace that it was an open joke among the employees. Now one might say that such a culture sounds prime for what the consultants like to call a “shake-up”… and maybe so. But if you’re going to shake a company up as dramatically as ours was, you’d better be prepared with a plan for managing the forces the shake up unleashes.

Our lean shake-up consisted, in stunning fashion, of the immersion of most of the workforce in a breathless succession of Rapid Improvement Events; the redeployment of managers to meetings for mastering the intricacies of lean at the cost of leaving their departments unsupervised; papering every available wall space and blocking windows with Post-its and white boards filled with diagrams, flowcharts, and incomprehensible lean jargon; purging of materials and equipment deemed obsolete by the measure of standing in disuse for six months or more; eliminating offices and cubicles for an open floor plan.

The plan for helping employees cope with this enormous and sudden disruption was to tell workers ad nauseum that “change is hard.” Human beings know almost instinctively how hard change is – that’s precisely why we have such an ambivalent relationship with it. The priority, it seems, for the one introducing and directing the change – the one with the greatest investment in the success of the change – is to make it not so hard… to do everything possible to minimize the fear factor.

A non-revolutionary approach would involve the space of change as well as the pace of it. Ours was a global company with multiple divisions. A key division, and one that would actually be most readily attuned to a lean transformation, was our lab. A sensible introduction of lean would have started in the lab with the goal of creating over a period of a year or two demonstrable successes that could then be used to build credibility throughout the rest of the company. In addition, such an approach would have created a cadre of insider advocates for lean. Instead we went for the whole enchilada. Eating an enchilada, as we know, can be a messy, spicy enterprise that can come back on you. And so it did.

I would say that a second factor that led to my company’s lean failure was missing an early opportunity to model the kind of employee involvement necessary for lean to genuinely thrive.

In the first week of our lean initiative, a fellow employee of mine – known for her contrary nature even before lean arrived – asked why we were going through lean. She took a strong, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” stance. After patronizing attempts to mollify her, rather than directly and honestly answer her, she was “excused” from any further participation in lean events. As I write in my book, as a former high school teacher I was often confronted with contentious students demanding to know why they had to read this or write that, or even be in school. I learned early on that whatever time it took to answer that student’s question fully was worth it – if not to that particular student’s satisfaction at least to the greater enlightenment of the other students in the class who would be observing the exchange intently. The biggest problem in a classroom is not the noisy student, but the quiet ones who are afraid to speak up and don’t know or care how to question. Our school systems specialize in sending people into the workforce who are timid and untrained in raising critical questions.

Efforts, especially at the job level, to undo the school system’s harm to curiosity and critical thinking are often met with rigid if unstated resistance. And it’s not just the fault of the school. General workplace attitudes toward dissenters in the ranks are not encouraging. Though few workers could articulate it, their inhibitions to asking why can be linked to the suspicion, at least, that they’re being set up for what is known as The “Thousand Flowers” Fallacy, as practiced in Mao’s Thousand Flowers period of the Chinese revolution. In it, the appearance of free and open discussion – “brainstorming” – is briefly allowed and encouraged in order to expose unorthodox thinking for purging rather than engaging. Our consultants’ word for such nonconformists was “antibody” (thus resulting in misuse of the word antibody and abuse of those most willing to ask why).

Workers are instinctively wary of employers suddenly showing an interest in what’s on their minds. To overcome this resistance and get workers to ask the “why?” questions that are so fundamental to a lean transformation, worker trust and critical thinking skill has to be developed, not assumed.

Treating even the most cantankerous employee with respect demonstrates to the others that you mean business when you tell them you want to hear what’s on their minds. Making a thousand whys flower should be a matter of real revolutionary pride for a lean agent. It should be liberating to be identified as a person who welcomes questions, including questions that challenge premises of lean. To get there, the agent must drop a defensive posture and show workers – through both word and deed – that he or she is there to engage with them, not detect, deflect or disrespect them.

A third factor that I believe killed our lean transformation was the reliance on outsiders rather than insiders to make it happen.

At one point in our company’s initiative I was invited to visit three other area companies where lean had taken root. At that point, worrying signs were already apparent with our company’s lean initiative, and as I traveled in close company with one of our executives, she expressed deep concern that we would ever reach the level of lean integration that was evident at these other companies. When we did a post-tour assessment, the most glaring difference between our approach and theirs was that they had been led by insiders and we were being led by outsiders. All three companies had sent key employees off for a nine-week training in lean, and then those employees were empowered to introduce lean to the entire workforce. Our company, on the other hand, had submitted to outside consultants at great expense and on a contracted time-schedule to bring us our lean transformation. I don’t think I can overestimate the value of having people familiar with the business of the company and the personality of the workforce lead such a profound change in a workplace culture.

Again, I am not a major stakeholder in the lean movement, so the irony is not lost on me that I’m presenting these observations as an outsider– largely unfamiliar with lean culture and personality–not an insider. But I’ve tried to make them in a good faith effort to help lean practitioners do better both for themselves and their clients. The paradox, I believe, is that to truly achieve continuous improvement lean has to subject itself to continuous inquiry, challenge, and critique. The measure of lean success should not be in the “truths” it espouses but in the questions it arouses.


Dan Riley photograph

 Dan Riley, writer and blogger, The Nobby Works