Is This Woman Set Up to Fail?


There are lots of places online where people can ask questions about Lean, such as the LEI forums and numerous LinkedIn groups. I saw one question in a LinkedIn group that really gave me pause… I won't use her name or company name since the LinkedIn groups are somewhat private.

She wrote:

Hello! I've been tasked to lead a Lean Implementation in a division here at [company]. I would like to ‘benchmark' with other manufacturers in North America who have also done a Lean Implementation.

I have training (from 6 years ago) and book reading, but haven't had the opportunity for Lean application until now. I also have a long road to ‘sell' this to upper management. I would love input on how others have successfully implemented Lean, and what roadblocks to avoid.

Your advice would be? Mine is….

My first thought is maybe she should just quit. Is this at all a fair situation to put somebody in. What are the strikes against her here?

  • She is, at a staff level, responsible for Lean implementation
  • She has no experience with Lean, just some old training and books
  • She is expected to sell upper management on Lean
  • She has been told to go benchmark, I'm guessing to find a cookbook approach or simple things to copy

OMG. Is this a challenge she should really take on? It seems like a path toward burnout and gray hair. I can see her profile and I don't see any management experience, just individual contributor work.

Clearly, I think she has an uphill battle. There's honor in uphill battles, but at some point you have to wonder if it will be worth the effort to her.

Over the years, I've received many emails from frustrated Lean people who are expected to do miraculous things by just implementing tools when leadership doesn't want to change, nobody has interest in changing the management system, and this lone wolf (or wolf-ette) isn't allowed to get the front line staff involved (gotta keep making parts, you know).

I know one frustrated woman from a hospital who was brought it from a very world-class manufacturing company to “make the hospital Lean” but it sounds like senior leadership doesn't have the first clue about what's really needed and they aren't listening to her recommendations based on her experience. So she's wondering how long she should be loyal and try and at what point she should just quit and leave.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA. JULY 20, 2010. A red wolf in the Moscow Zoo. (Photo ITAR-TASS/ Alexandra Mudrats) Photo via Newscom

I have personally been a frustrated “lone wolf” – caught in the middle of a manufacturing company that said they wanted to get Lean, but I was supposed to do it myself, constantly fighting to engage the focused factory manager and the front-line manager… very little was happening, but the CEO was bragging about how Lean we were supposedly getting. I learned a lot and it was a huge personal and professional challenge… but we accomplished very little. I know I've helped accomplish quite a lot in a different setting, with better leadership and a better climate. It's not all on the shoulders of the internal “lone wolf” or the lone external consultant who is expected to be some miracle worker.

I'm trying to remember exactly which Podcast it was, but this question came up with Dr. Jeff Liker and he was pretty dry and blunt that a person in a similar situation like this should just quit and go to a company that really wants to make the Lean transformation.

Yes, the woman who asked the question on LinkedIn will learn a ton in this uphill battle, but is it worth it, the amount of stress and effort that's required? What would your advice be? Am I being too discouraging or am I just being realistic?

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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. Mark,

    I think you are realistic AND discouraging, and putting people back on earth is often a smart idea. But I don’t agree with your initial impulse “she should just quit” – forward is the only reasonable direction, and giving up is not (or should not be) an option….after all, you said it: she will learn zillions of new things in this journey!

    W.r.t. the LinkedIn question you posted: I think she has only one chance: (a) Don’t implement tools, don’t point out muda in every corner, but seed a vision of the future state – and (b) start small, e.g. in one corner of manufacturing, so the system is controllable with only a limited set of variables to be taken into account (=> Theory of constraints).

    Greetz from Germany,

  2. I don’t know. I think more investigation would be in order before leaving the company. I’d be curious who tasked her with the transformation – was it a senior leader, or someone lower in the organization? Are there resources she could draw upon to help her get started? Could she enlist the help of a sensei to gauge her chances for success? Maybe I’m a bit idealistic, but my tendency is to assess the situation before quitting. My 2 cents.

  3. Mark knows that I work in lean today, but not everyone knows that my husband was one such annointed and appointed “pioneer of lean” in his organization 20 years ago… and as Mark points out, even with the support of corporate management, it was a constant conflict situation in the plants, from the floor to the front office. My bright-eyed full-of-ideas engineer husband was seen as the pot-stirrer, the boat-rocker. We got threats in our mailbox at home, the company’s 800-number complaint line was lit up with anonymous gripes and insults, comparing him to a range of historical dictators. But he did not quit. The improvements, one by one, and small at first, spoke for themselves. Many of the worst complainers became the strongest supporters and jumped on that pioneer wagon along with him. New lines were designed, old lines were re-formatted. Inventory reduced, staffing streamlined. Lean spreads like a religion when a spark ignites, and skeptics become believers. Lean implementation spread through that company and it became the crown jewel in an organization later purchased by Autoliv, where he continues his work today. The the proof is in the pudding. Results talk. Over these past two plus decades, he was not always the most popular guy on the bus, but he was always encouraged to keep fighting the fight, improving production, reducing waste, implementing countermeasures, soldiering on in the quest for continuous improvement. He’s still making improvements today, every day, and it’s become a way of life for everyone in the organization. Those who don’t initially “get it,” soon do… or they are the ones to leave.

  4. Mark,

    As a veteran consultant, I would have to say that the available evidence is that she isn’t very likely to succeed. It sure sounds like her employer (or at least her immediate boss) is more interested in lean as a form of corporate reputation remodeling (kind of like ISO 9000 has been used my most companies) rather than a transformational tool.

    If she is serious about trying to implement lean techniques at her company, it sounds like she will be pushing string. It is highly unlikely that she is going to be successful in “selling the senior management.” From the sounds of it, she has neither the experience nor the position to accomplish that job.

    If she seriously wants to master the challenges of making lean work in an organization, she probably needs to go somewhere else. However, both of us know that it is more likely that she will try her best in a bad situation and then skulk away to a corner to mourn. It is equally likely that she will continue to work for a company that was never serious about valuing the blood, sweat and tears that poured into the project, while “senior management” wonders why employees are cynical and morale is so bad.

  5. Another option for her would be to go to management and outline the circumstances she’s in – thinking of them like force field theory – driving and restraining forces – and ask for their help in reducing/eliminating the restraining forces (pointed out very well in the posts above).

    Although we know her odds are long and it will be tough, there is a lot of learning to be had that could be valuable to her in the future if she sticks with it, especially if she is interested in lean coaching as a career.

    All of us have faced discouragement in a lean transformation, myself included, but there is something to be said for stubborn tenacity, too.

  6. I would take a step back and ask if she even wants to do this. Reading her question, I’m not sure she even cares if she implements lean or not. It was just an assignment given to her. Not her taking this on by her own passion. If that is the case, then I can’t hardly see her winning at all. In fact, her company will probably fall into doing L.A.M.E. and evidence you will see is a S.L.A.T. (Subordinate Lean Assault Team) or people who do nothing but kaizen events to get improvements and call it lean.

    Main point is, do we even know if she cares about doing lean?

  7. Mark, you are realistic, though the recommendation to quit is an overreaction. I agree with Mark Bliss that more investigation is appropriate. Our LinkedIn woman seems game and willing, though uninformed. Let’s hope she can also have a forthright conversation with her boss (or the person who assigned her to lead the implementation). How to proceed? I suggest she conduct her benchmarking and focus on the readiness factors and organizational environment factors that are essential for success. Then, have a direct and constructive conversation with her boss. A force field structure could be an effective presentation approach (as Mark Welch suggests), but Mark you imply that she would address / resolve the restraining forces “with help”. Disagree. The leadership team owns resolution of the restraining forces and enablement of key success factors–and that needs to be the substance of the conversation. Absent a commitment from leadership, she should gracefully withdraw from the assignment. (I’m sensitive to the personal implications for her–the withdrawal would be based on the benchmarking findings.) Next step if leadership “won’t let her off”: educate the leaders (seminars, site visits, peer-to-peer connections) before beginning any implementation steps.

  8. As the architect of a culture based lean conversion, I would not advise anyone to agree to be a lean champion without the full “knowing” support of their Chief Executive. My team of Lean Champions know because of our culture that they have authority and responsibility for helping our teams reduce waste. It’s a simple concept, but meets with huge resistance. As Dr. Toussaint stated in an interview posted on this blog, he resisted participation in an improvement event, but his mentor insisted and it became a pivotal event in Thedacare’s Lean conversion.

  9. For me it begs for some more fact finding.

    Who “tasked” her with “leading a Lean implementation?” and why? What is that person’s role in the Lean/change process, their role with the company, their own understanding of Lean, and their own commitment to Lean?

    I hate to use overused phrases, but what is this division’s “burning bridge?” Was she “tasked” with “leading a Lean implementation” because someone had just come from a seminar or, worse yet, a 45 minute breakfast meeting and heard the term used, or is there a substantive issue that is forcing the company’s hand? Did a customer who has significant weight just happen to mention Lean to a company exec and this set off a knee-jerk reaction to “get Lean?”

    What is/was her position with the company prior to being tasked with this? Was she given a choice in this assignment?

    Lots of questions, but ones that I would need answers to in order to make an informed decision or offer an opinion on what steps to take next. Depending on the answers, quitting may be the recommendation! Before I did that, though, I’d take advantage of every opportunity to learn more about Lean before this door slams shut.

  10. She should go find 3 really successful plant managers or CEOs that have done lean right and then go drag her CEO and sr execs and show them what they have to do if they want to be lean and if they are still interested then have them sign in blood that they really will do it. Only when everyone signs up should she move forward.

  11. This is a difficult question to answer. I know an organization where someone was hired to make improvements but had no support or backing of the executive leaders. This person connected with finance to get agreements on how to show where improvements impacted budgets (either through cost reduction or creating capacity to help more customers without hiring more people). Once this agreement was reached, the improvement efforts were initially focused on things that will show an impact to the budget. Now that the executive team can see the positve results, they are beginning to champion more lean work.

    So if she works at getting some low hanging fruit in a way to entice the exutive leadership to pay attention, she has a shot. One major caveat is that this person had 20+ years of lean experince. This was not easy work that you can figure out from reading the Toyota Way.

  12. As a lean practitioner, Kaizen Black Belt and a successful veteran of change management efforts who started out in the regulated electric utility industry and is now an elated lean practitioner working in the very regulated Health Care Industry, here is my three cents worth.

    I would have to agree with you Mark on this. I think she should move on from this assignment i.e. QUIT.

    I think it is a complete dis-service to her and the Company that she works for to lay this task on her without her fundamental knowledge of lean principles and most especially the understanding of how to IMPLEMENT CHANGE and especially HANDLE CHANGE RESISTANCE.

    It is also unconscionable that she has not been given the leadership authority to make this happen. I guess she will have to resort to ‘begging, pleading and cajoling’ the stakeholders to accept the lean changes. This is certainly an UNSUSTAINABLE model as well as an UNENVIABLE position to be in.


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