Survey Blames Blame for Lean Struggles


The LEI is out with their annual survey (pdf) about our ongoing struggles implementing Lean, with articles (reprinting the press release) and blog posts already written, The results aren't the views of the LEI, but are the views of the respondents to their survey.

The survey asks, in part, “What are the biggest obstacles to lean implementation at your facility?”

I appreciate the work the LEI does, but maybe they should change their survey to a “5 Whys” format to get to the “root cause” of these problems. The format of the current survey seems to ask “Who is the biggest obstacle…?”, which reeks of finger pointing, a practice that isn't supposed to be part of the Toyota Way. Instead of asking “who?” we are supposed to ask “why?” Update: Take our trial “5 Whys?” survey on this topic.

Before the blaming begins, last year's #1 reason was “backsliding,” which seems more an illustration or example of the Lean struggles than a cause itself. Anyway, it fell to #6 on the list this year. My nitpicking aside, if we're “backsliding to old ways of working” (as the LEI puts it) less, that's a good thing. Hooray, Lean world. Rather than just pointing at backsliding, a more appropriate question, for those who are still backsliding, would be “why are you backsliding?”

In this year's survey, the top obstacles are (in a “check all that apply” format):

  1. Middle management resistance (36.1%)
  2. Lack of implementation know-how (31.0%)
  3. Employee resistance (27.7%)
  4. Supervisor resistance (23.0%)
  5. Lack of crisis (17.7%)

And the list goes on through the 10 choices on the survey.

Viewed from the positive perspective, *only* 36% percentage of us face resistance from middle managers, which might not be that bad. 64% of us are able to get our middle managers on board, maybe those are the ones with a crisis to use as a motivation for Lean.

While the LEI press release headline says “New Survey: Middle Managers Are Biggest Obstacle to Lean Enterprise,” that's an unfortunate analysis. I would have titled it “Ineffective Leaders Blame Other Employees for Lean Enterprise Struggles.” Blame, blame, blame, maybe they could add “our ungrateful customers” and “our lousy suppliers” as survey choices next year?

Sorry to be blunt, but when we find ourselves saying (and trust me, I've caught myself saying it before) “this Lean effort would be going great only if so-and-so would get on board,” that's a cop-out and an excuse. It's blaming others and I don't think it's productive. It's OK to identify lack of buy-in as a problem, but then get to work on it! It's our job, as leaders, to get people on board. There are many ways of doing this and many books written on the topic already. It's not an altogether bad thing to recognize your managers are not on board with Lean, the question is what do you do about it?

#7 in the list hits on what I think is the real key: “Failure to overcome opposition.” That starts smelling like more of a root cause to me. And that was only about 4% of the responses. There's some leaders who are looking in the mirror (or maybe the respondents were pointing the finger of blame upward).

I followed up with Chet Marchwinski of the LEI and he told me they do not know the population distribution of who responded (the range from CEO to front-line employee), but it's interesting to see “Lack of top management support” isn't in the Top 10. Actually, Chet pointed out that it wasn't a choice and there were no open-ended responses allowed in their survey format. Based on some feedback from myself (and others), they are considering adding that as a category/choice for next year.

I hate to point fingers of blame myself, but I'm more willing to hold accountable the upper management levels who are responsible for strategy and overall company direction.

We could do a “5 Whys” analysis, which might look something like:

  1. Why are we backsliding? Because we're lacking employee buy in
  2. Why do we have that? Because the supervisors aren't bought in and aren't holding the employees accountable
  3. Why is that? Because the managers aren't explaining to the supervisors why Lean is critical to the company's success
  4. Why is that? Because upper management expects their employees to implement Lean because they said so and without any other leadership, support, or organization alignment
  5. Why is that? Because upper management is too busy blaming others (Wall St., China, suppliers, labor costs) to take the time to be leaders?

Any other thoughts? I'm actually going to pilot a “5 Whys” format of this same survey question to see if we can get to root causes and action and away from blame.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. [Disclaimer: I’m a bit reluctant to write this for fear of appearing self-promoting. But the point is sufficiently valid to warrant the apparent conflict of interest.]

    From my perspective, one way to help get employee buy-in is to show them how lean principles can make their lives easier. Lower inventory, fewer defects, more efficient work flow — sure, these are vital issues for the company. But those are issues that first affect the firm, not the individual worker. From an individual’s perspective, lean processes are just something new and different — and by definition, scary.

    When I show people (office workers, not line workers) how to apply lean principles to their work, they immediately experience the benefits: lower stress, greater sense of control, and a clearer mind. Getting buy-in is easy, because they can feel the benefits.

    Backsliding is still an issue, of course: habits are hard to break, and most people’s work habits have been set over years of work. But there’s very little resistance to implementing lean ideas.

    So I would ask the following question: how do you help line workers experience the benefits of lean immediately?

  2. Dan — showing value/benefits is great, but you also have to remove fear (fear of layoffs, etc.)

    Maybe a general roadmap:

    1) Define problem/opportunity (why lean?)

    2) Acknowledge & remove fear

    3) Involve them in the process (what is lean, how to do it?)

    4) Show benefits (tie back to why)

    5) Reinforce (proper measures, rewards, etc.)

  3. Ralf – you make a great point that a business is a complex system. That makes it the realm for Systems Dynamics analysis, I agree!

    But, most of us don’t have the training or access to such a tool. Would make a great PhD dissertation!

    My question about the 5 whys is meant to prompt people to at least think one level of “why?” further than “so-and-so won’t buy in.” It’s a real challenge to take it all the way through 5 whys and that might not even be necessary. Let’s just look past blame.

  4. Perhaps the 50 whys in this case?

    Seems to me that by saying we should apply the 5 whys simply means we approach the problem with a questioning attitude, and keep digging for the root cause. That applies to every problem at every level.

    I don’t have a copy, but the Toyota Way shows a good example of tracing dripping oil from a machine back to the purchasing agent’s apprasal. It’s in the back near the funnel graphic.

  5. Hi Mark, I went to complete your survey for my software development shop, but I stopped short at the example of 5-whys you present just ahead of Question 3 – because it’s all about blame! It reads to me as being a catalogue of “why did X happen? because person Y didn’t do Z.” Even the very first statement contains a large assumption about how to begin solving the problem.

    My understanding of 5-whys (and I admit to being only an amateur compared to you and your readers) is that we should begin with an observation. So how about “Workers often take a while to locate their tools.” Why? “Because they are left in random places.” Why? “Because putting them away in the ‘right’ place takes too long.” Why? “Because …”

    This kind of reasoning, different from the “person Y didn’t do Z” kind, will lead us naturally to ask for time/cost trade-offs between 5S and not-5S. So instead of using blame and dogma, we can bring senior management around with a compelling analysis.

    The agile software community has discovered that management resistance or disinterest is our problem, not theirs. 5-whys can be a great tool, but only when we avoid using it to point fingers.
    Regards, Kevin

  6. O.k., granted, if we want to lead then we have to act like leaders and not place blame. BUT….

    I will hazard a guess that many of us implementing Lean are somewhere in the middle of the ranks: we are manufacturing engineers, quality engineers, consultants, technicians, etc. that are constantly trying to speak two languages, management speak and production speak. They are two very different languages. Now, if I’m being asked to lead, I will do my best. I will do everything I can to support, coach, cajole, invite to dinner, you name it…at some point I will get that person to the edge of the cliff, where they can jump into the world of lean thinking and never look back. To get a person to this point involveds training, involvement and little bits of harmless lean: 5S, TPM, etc.,….BUT, at somepoint a person must finally get to the edge of the cliff…the leader above that you have worked so hard to gain “buy-in.” That person MUST be willing to take the leap. If he/she doesn’t, what does that do to the culture of the company? As the old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” So, without holding a gun to the horse head, how do you make him drink? And then, when the horse doesn’t drink, do you pull the trigger? Is our inability to fire the concrete heads of the world; NOT the ones that will get eventually, but the ones that will refuse to get it, part of our cultural organizational problem? Aren’t these people truly obstacles? Or can everyone be saved?

  7. Hello,

    I’d go in another direction after the 4th why. Why are the top managers waiting for others to do just because they asked?

    -they expect things have been always done like that (I guess they never go on the gemba: in my company, few managers actually do as their superior told them, because new fires occult what’s been said in the past – no risk of being caught!)
    -nobody told them hard and long enough that they should gemba walk and sustain the management system.

    What’s your opinion? (this is precisely what I’m experiencing here, and I’m about to devise a plan to involve top management further.


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