Home > The Lean Post> Succeeding by Failing
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

Succeeding by Failing

by Cameron Ford
June 30, 2016

Succeeding by Failing

by Cameron Ford
June 30, 2016 | Comments (3)

Our sister publication Planet Lean recently published a great piece by writer and blogger Dan Riley. This story of a lean transformation gone awry is fascinating in its own right, and exemplifies something that seems to be missing from the lean community.

When outside consultants “performed” a lean transformation to an organization where Dan worked, they ended up disrupting the organization and ultimately did more harm than good. Riley notes three critical missteps that he believes doomed the project:

  1. Change by immersion. Riley’s consultants underestimated how the workers would react to a barrage of Rapid Improvement Events right off the bat – their chosen method for executing the transformation. The chaos and anxiety this caused was amplified by the fact that changing quickly was virtually unheard of in this organization. From “the redeployment of managers to meetings for mastering the intricacies of lean at the cost of leaving their departments unsupervised” to “eliminating offices and cubicles for an open floor plan” without any feasible plan to manage change, the workers found themselves completely overwhelmed.
  2. Lack of emphasis on employee engagement. Riley writes that in the very first week of the transformation, a coworker asked the million-dollar question: “Why are we even adopting lean?” She couldn’t understand why the culture and systems needed to change when there was nothing wrong (at least from her perspective). The leadership’s response was along the lines of: “Alright fine, you don’t have to participate in the kaizen events if you don’t want to.” With that, Riley writes, the company missed their chance to show what respect for people truly looks like in a lean organization. “Treating even the most cantankerous employee with respect,” Riley adds, “demonstrates to the others that you mean business when you tell them you want to hear what's on their minds.”
  3. Bringing the outside in. Although it’s not uncommon in a lean transformation, Riley attributes his organization’s use of external consultants to carry out the lean transformation as another factor behind the failure. Riley writes about visiting three thriving lean organizations with an executive, and subsequently realizing that the successful companies had implemented lean by training and empowering select key employees, who were then instructed to spread their knowledge to the rest of the workforce. No outside consultants operating on a set schedule.

Riley’s article is a great illustration of something lacking in the wider world of lean knowledge. Honest Question Time: When was the last time you went to a lean summit and heard a speaker talk strictly about a lean failure? A talk in which the speaker first laid out a gloomy initial state before segueing into the wins doesn’t count.

It’s doubtful that Maroon 5 was talking about lean when they sang, “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies,” but they might as well have been. Why are almost all lean talks focused on the good when we know there’s no such thing as a perfect transformation?

As John Shook pointed out at the end of the 2016 Lean Transformation Summit in Las Vegas, a lean transformation is all about the lessons learned – whether you consider it a success or a failure. It seems beyond ironic, therefore, that we don’t hear more about what didn’t work, rather than what did work. Brent Wahba said it well too in a piece earlier this month in which he emphasizes the irony that:

“…99.999% of books, articles and presentations [are] about unbridled success when actual realization (as in sustained transformation) estimates range between five and 25 percent. Isn’t the lean community, of all people, supposed to be discussing problems, gaps, and what we learned from failure so we can get better? This sounds like a pretty critical burning platform for all of us.”

He’s right, of course. The very nature of lean is about learning from mistakes in order to continuously improve. Taiichi Ohno said it too. (“Having no problem is the biggest problem of all.”).

I had this illustrated for me quite clearly last month, while touring a manufacturing plant for a large corporation. I was especially impressed by what I saw on the line – flawless single-piece flow, well-established pull, and every area of the conveyer belt oriented and poisitioned for maximum ergonomic comfort. The plant manager asked me what I thought of the tour, and I said, “It's incredible, especially the flow on the line. Everything’s running very smoothly.”

His response threw me off. “Yeah. Too smooth, though.”

He then proceeded to tell me about how the management team was about to retrain the entire staff on quality control. Why? Because the workers on the line did not think they were making any mistakes. In the span of a week, the andon had not once been pulled, and that was disturbing to the management – they expected mistakes. And without any being caught on the line, there was only one remaining party in the value stream that would catch them: the customers. The plant manager capped off his point nicely, telling me, “No mistakes, no good.”

If I may quote John Shook one more time (this time from a piece he wrote on NUMMI’s culture):

“The famous tools of the Toyota Production System are all designed around making it easy to see problems, easy to solve problems, to make it easy to learn from mistakes. Making it easy to learn from mistakes means changing our attitude toward them. THAT is the lean cultural shift.”

If mistakes are an integral part of a lean transformation, is it possible that one needs to fail to succeed, so to speak? With such a fickle definition of success in a lean transformation anyway, is it possible that we’re looking at the wrong question?

What if the question of true "success" in a lean transformation is less about the tangible results we label “success,” and more about the sustainable cultural gains we win with every kaizen event?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  fundamentals,  kaizen,  learning,  manufacturing
Search Posts:
Key Concepts of Lean
Dave LaHote, David Meier, Ernie Richardson, Joe Murli, Josh Howell, Karl Ohaus, Michael Hoseus, Tom Shuker & Tracey Richardson
The Gold Mine
By Freddy Ballé and Michael Ballé
The Lean Manager
By Michael Ballé and Freddy Ballé
Was this post... Click all that apply
HELPFUL
9 people say YES
INTERESTING
22 people say YES
INSPIRING
12 people say YES
ACCURATE
8 people say YES
Related Posts
3 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban June 30, 2016

I've talked about "Lean failures," including my own mistakes, in conference talks. That's one theme of my "Practicing Lean" ebook project where many authors have contributed stories about their early mistakes and reflections on them. When is LEI going to have stories like this on stage at their own Summit? 2017? Is be happy to participate. To learn more about the ebook project (with all proceeds going to charity) go to www.practicinglean.com. 

Reply »

Bob Rush June 30, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Failures provide more lessons than successes and happen much more frequently. Mark Graban calls it practicing lean, if we were perfect we wouldn't need to practice. I tell my teams that what lean is about is about doing and learning, not being right all the time or using certain tools but rather finding out how to fix things.

Reply »

Mark Graban June 30, 2016

The need to be right all the time leads to organizations and people being super cautious. If they're scared of being in trouble for even a small failure, they'll never try anything new. Small failures help prevent bigger failures. I think that's the key.

Reply »

Search Posts:
Key Concepts of Lean
Dave LaHote, David Meier, Ernie Richardson, Joe Murli, Josh Howell, Karl Ohaus, Michael Hoseus, Tom Shuker & Tracey Richardson
The Gold Mine
By Freddy Ballé and Michael Ballé
The Lean Manager
By Michael Ballé and Freddy Ballé