Four Reasons Lean Initiatives Fail and How Leadership Can Help

It’s been estimated that at least 60% of continuous improvement initiatives fail to achieve their desired results. In reaction to lackluster results, I’ve seen budget cuts, SME resignations, training refreshers, program reboots, and plenty of hand wringing while leaders wonder, “why won’t people just use the tools and do what we’ve asked them to do?” It’s a disappointing irony that we’ve come to accept so much waste in planning, implementing, and training people in a methodology meant to decrease waste. Consider these factors identified by McLean and Antony (2014) that can make or break improvement initiatives and how leaders can focus on the people side of Lean to increase the likelihood of success.

Unclear Motives and Unrealistic Expectations

A review of the evidence conducted by McLean and Antony (2014) showed that starting an initiative for the wrong reasons can lead to failure (e.g., jumping on the bandwagon or in response to external pressures). However, even if leaders have the purest of intentions, the perception of ulterior motives can be just as damaging. I’ve been in the room where the passing mention of Lean evoked visible discomfort and awkward silence from the frontline supervisors present. The silence was eventually replaced with an impassioned tirade about upper management’s perceived desire to cut jobs and replace workers with technology. Similar tensions and fears have escalated with the debut of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and uncertainty about how technology may continue to be integrated in the workplace. 

When I ask frontline leaders what management should do more often, communicating realistic expectations almost always makes the list. Many of them are turned off by grandiose visions and the promise that a complete transformation lies just around the corner. Motivational speeches are met with silent skepticism or jokes in the breakroom. If you take a moment to view things from the skeptic’s perspective, these negative attitudes make sense. These lofty expectations from leadership signal several new behavior expectations from frontline contributors. Oftentimes these expectations are layered on top of existing critical responsibilities without making it clear how employees should balance and prioritize their duties. 

Clarifying Motives and Tempering Expectations

Leaders should take the time to clarify the motives and business needs driving the current initiative. An acknowledgement of past attempts, failures, and what makes this time different can help. The message should be communicated sincerely, with specific details, and in-person if possible. Initiative champions across departments may partner to host small group roundtable discussions where frontline employees can ask questions and hear answers directly from executives and managers. This is also a good time to solicit ideas from employees regarding what barriers they’ve experienced around previous initiatives. Leaders can capture insights and suggestions, then thank participants for engaging in the moment. Insights can be used to set more realistic expectations regarding outcomes and behaviors key to producing those results. Leaders can then close the loop by communicating back what changes have resulted from employee input. This serves the practical benefit of making it more likely that employees will proactively offer improvement suggestions in the future—a key behavior in any continuous improvement framework. Even if nothing can be done about some barriers, leaders shouldn’t underestimate the morale-boosting value of being asked for an opinion and truly being heard. 

Punitive Organizational Culture 

We’ve all heard the saying, “people resist change.” It seems like common sense to many, but like many beliefs that were once common sense, the reality isn’t quite so straightforward. If people naturally resist change, why do some voluntarily wait in line for hours to ride the newest theme park attraction or get their hands on the latest and greatest smartphone? People don’t resist change; they resist change that they believe will make their lives more difficult. In most organizations the unfortunate truth is that any change signals a slew of negative consequences for those impacted. For example, upgrading to new HRIS software may certainly make things easier and more efficient down the road. We’re all familiar with the short-term costs though. Quick tasks suddenly take a bit longer as users learn to navigate a new interface. They may fall behind on other work while taking tutorials and practicing. They may even temporarily need peer support for things that were previously done independently. These small inconveniences might seem like a modest price to pay compared with the expected benefit, but they have an outsize impact on behavior. These negative consequences can be thought of as friction that gets in the way of behavior. 

Assess Cultural Readiness 

The existing culture of an organization has the potential to restrict or accelerate continuous improvement efforts. Before diving headfirst into an initiative, leaders can assist by conducting a cultural assessment to determine where they stand now, and whether the culture is predictive of success. Doing so will help leaders proactively uncover and anticipate possible sources of behavioral friction before they become a larger issue. Furthermore, an assessment can reveal whether there is a unified culture or whether vastly different subcultures exist within the organization. This knowledge can support leaders in customizing their timing and implementation approach. 

Bloated Training

For some employees, the first sign of a new continuous improvement initiative is Lean content that is added to their training program. Training is an opportunity to not only talk about Lean concepts and tools but also demonstrate them within the design of the training itself. For example, it’s common for training of any kind to contain a mix of information—mission critical substance and some things that are nice to know, but not always valuable from the perspective of the trainee. The history of Lean and Toyota may be interesting to some, but to others it’s a waste of time. Taiichi Ohno’s words of wisdom may inspire some to action, and the same quotes may do little to help a frontline operator become more effective in their role. 

Customer-Centric Training

Leaders should demonstrate the customer-centric principles of Lean by facilitating ongoing collaboration and communication between Lean SMEs, L&D professionals, and training recipients. These partnerships can help focus training on Lean tools and methods to only the information necessary for the performer to do what is being asked of them. Instead of asking “What else should be in the training?” ask “What can be cut?” Longer and more thorough training does not necessarily equate to better training. Highly customized training generates buy-in by not placing the burden of figuring out how and what to apply from the training to day-to-day work. Leaders should also ensure feedback systems exist and are used to continuously improve training based on stakeholder perceptions and learning outcomes.


Remember to build in plenty of time for practice. Without practice, it can seem like even the most engaging and well delivered learning experiences go in one ear and out the other. When possible, practice should be built right into the training itself. If there’s no time for practice within the training, partner with functional leaders to ensure practice time is provided on the job. Giving trainees the opportunity to immediately use the tools they’ve just learned about boosts retention and demonstrates the value such tools bring to the table. It also makes using the news tools easier since they will have had an opportunity to work out potential kinks in a controlled and supportive environment. When leaders fail to provide practice time it can unintentionally send the message that the goal is to simply complete the training, instead of applying the methods they’ve learned about to solve real problems. 


In addition to providing time for dedicated practice, leaders should also plan to provide ongoing support to employees through coaching. This is especially important after training employees on recent changes to a process that have resulted from a Lean initiative or Kaizen event. Even if the new way of doing things is communicated by trainers, functional leaders, and reflected in standard work revisions, it’s often still not enough to generate sustained behavior change by those expected to execute the process differently. It’s just too easy to get swept right back into old habits and routines, especially when short-staffed and under time pressure. To reduce the likelihood of backsliding, a detailed plan to measure and reinforce the new behaviors should be included as part of the control or sustain steps in an initiative. This does not mean simply conducting audits and providing a detailed list of errors back to leadership or the employee. Rather, leaders should be empowered to spend time at the Gemba reinforcing critical behaviors and helping employees see the big-picture value in sustaining the new process (even if take a little more effort on their part). 

It’s clear that there are a multitude of factors contributing to the relatively low success rate of continuous improvement initiatives. It may never be possible to anticipate and control all variables, especially those external to your organization. That makes it even more critical to prevent the problems we can anticipate. By focusing on these common failure modes and positioning yourself as a strategic partner throughout planning and implementation phases, your support may be the boost your organization needs to realize lasting success. 

McLean, R., & Antony, J. (2014). Why continuous improvement initiatives fail in manufacturing environments? A systematic review of the evidence. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, 63(3), 370-376.


Posted by Brian Molina, Ph.D.

Brian has been in the field of Behavioral Science for over 8 years. He has helped organizations improve their operations and service delivery by assessing performance and implementing learning and performance solutions to drive desired outcomes. He has broad experience partnering with business, non-profit, and public sector entities.