Interesting NWLEAN Discussion


NWLEAN : Message: Why does Lean struggle to take hold in the U.S.?

I'm a member of the Yahoo Group called NWLEAN, where there's often some good discussion about Lean. The question was posed:

“Why does Lean struggle to take hold in the U.S.?”

I've often said that Lean doesn't fail or struggle…. or succeed…. people, leaders, or organizations struggle or succeed.

Let's not blame Lean. The question needs to be turned around… “Why do U.S. organizations struggle to fully utilize Lean thinking and Lean methods?”

Of course, I don't think those struggles are uniquely American either, although some of the underlying root causes might be different than other countries.

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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. Why do people struggle to make the lean change sustainable?

    If one reads the books available on the topic it sounds really easy: improve through small steps, involve workforce (from top to bottom), start the change and you will see there will be positive effects (time, quality, market share, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, global competitiveness, earnings, etc.).

    As the same phenomen can be seen everywhere around the world there seem to be some underlying root causes that hinder everything of changing to the better.

    I would like to point out some points that get in the way of reaching the lean “north star”:

    1. When the lean initiative is started employees -workforce as well as management- have to learn new techniques (lean tools) and connected with that they also have to change their traditional mental models (batch & queue thinking; functional silo thinking and acting, etc.).

    2. What do need when you have to learn new things?

    You need time! Where do you think is the time you need for the extra learning from 1.? There is already work pressure on you, working to the limit. Everybody is feeling under pressure and on the other hand the given goals have to hit (as set by top management).

    3. Through the immense pressure the quality slowly can drop as errors occur under pressure much more easily.

    4. This even results in even higher pressure, because now there is additional rework and -perhaps already- customer complaints

    5. Lean really doesn’t have the smell of success at this point and you think, “I want get to target if I don’t find a big solution to the problem!”

    6. So one doesn’t focus on the Kaizen method but on the big shot. This is also driven, as the culture of “fire fighting” is wide spread in batch & queue orientated businesses. Rewards only get people how solve BIG problems (“heros”). This undermines the small steps people all over the company could take into action way before the problems get as worse (as briefly described). Why does this happen -not only with lean but with change and improvement programs in general?

    Papers on that question are:

    Overcoming the Improvement Paradox

    Why Firefighting Is Never Enough

    Conclusion: sounds like that the given SYSTEM is standing in the way to getting to a sustainable lean course!

    Questions that have to be asked:

    a. How does the rewarding system support lean changes?

    b. What are managers goals? Their own or the company’s ones?

    c. Shouldn’t we change the system settings before we start lean changes?

    Interesting questions and it seems that nobody has found a clear answer to that. This should not -on the other- hinder us from deeply discussing the root causes in order to solve them for a better and sustainable future (lean thinking is a way to use the given resources in a more efficient and sustainable way for the good of all of us:-)).

    If you are interested, we are currently discussing a similar question at The implementation trap at XING (a business network similar to LinkedIn).

    If you are interested in joining the discussion -and other ones around lean- send me a note at ralf_lippold(at)

    Best regards



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