“Has Lean Ever Been Fully Implemented and Not Worked?” What About Yoga & Veganism


I was interviewed today by a reporter today who is doing a story on Lean. I'll post what he's writing about when it's published… don't want to “scoop” him by saying who or what he's writing it on.

Update: Here is that article

We talked about Lean being adopted in various industries and settings.

He asked a very interesting question, basically:

“Has Lean ever been fully implemented and not worked?”

I replied…

No organization that's really embracing and practicing Lean would ever say they're “done” with “implementing” Lean. Culture change is hard. Nobody is ever perfect. All organizations that many would label as “Lean” are going to be continuously re-inventing and improving themselves.

There ARE organizations that have given up on Lean. I wrote about one earlier this year, related to a hospital that had a new CEO kill their Lean program for unknown reasons:

Why Would a New Healthcare CEO Kill a Lean Program?

If an organization reaches the conclusion that “Lean didn't work here,” we'd have to ask why.

Did they think “Lean” meant just running a bunch of projects? Did they just train and certify front line staff on Lean tools and tactics?

If so, I would expect that they wouldn't get outstanding results.

I'm full of questions… so I'd also ask:

Were they not engaging everybody in continuous improvement?

Were they not managing differently at all levels?

Were they not trying to changing the culture?

Were they not adopting the Lean philosophy?

The writer had asked about scenarios involving engineers, staplers, and managers forcing them to put tape around their staplers… I've blogged about situations like that before and that sounds like a “Lean Failure” in the making to me.

One previous post (and read more about what I call “L.A.M.E.“)

This WSJ Article (as do Many Organizations) Misses the Point of 5S

I tried making a parallel… not that I'm practicing yoga or veganism.

I said…

Imagine if somebody said they started practicing yoga and became a vegan.


It's possible that person might GAIN a bunch of weight and become LESS healthy.


We'd have to ask “why?”

What if they were just laying on the ground and stretching a bit? Is that really yoga?

Maybe they were avoiding meat, cheese, and milk, but were eating a lot of sugar and processed foods? Is that really being a good vegan?

Would that person give up and say “I tried yoga and being a vegan and it didn't work”??

Would we, as observers, criticize yoga and vegan? Would we say those methods are bad? That they don't apply to some people?

Or would we say, “They probably didn't really learn properly about yoga and veganism”? Would we say, “It's a shame they didn't have a good yogi or nutritionist to help them”?

What do you think about my answers to that question and that analogy?

Yoga photo by Flickr user Andrew Kalat, used under Creative Commons License
Vegan photo by Flickr user Helen Alfvegren, used under Creative Commons License


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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

  1. Eric Overton says

    As a vegetarian of over 20 years, and an almost-vegan of a couple of years, I can say that your analogy works.
    Example: Oreos are vegan. So I could only eat them and be vegan, and be extremely unhealthy. I’d say that would be a non-expert way to be vegan. A more expert way would be to eat a whole-food (minimally processed) plant based diet.

    Similarly, I could use a few lean tools, and have horrible culture.

    Is there real consensus about the definition of lean?

    Vegan means not eating (or using) animal products. But it does not necessarily mean eating well.

    I think for some people lean is a set of tools, but not a management system.

    I have also been researching the work of Dr. Deming for a couple years, which I feel gives me a deeper understanding and context for lean.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Thanks for the insights!

      I’m happy to hear you’re learning about Deming. That was my initial education on quality and management before I ever got deep into Lean and Toyota.

  2. Bart says

    What does fully implemented Lean even mean especially in healthcare where I personally believe there needs to be a significant adaptation?

    Somewhat different is that I find it remarkable that some healthcare organizations have done a pretty crummy job of implementing Lean but are nowhere near considering abandoning it.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Yeah, I wouldn’t blame a hospital for giving up on Lean if their approach to, ahem, “implementing” Lean isn’t going well and isn’t getting meaningful and sustainable results.

      I’d propose, though, if an organization isn’t getting results they are “doing it wrong” in some way.

      1. BS says

        Good point about results. Now I am wondering how many hospitals have defined what results they want.

        Everybody involved in improvement?

        Store room 5S audits above 95?

        5% lower cost per case?

        A revolutionary culture change?

        Some hospitals have obviously done this very well. I suspect most, like my own, not so much.

        1. Mark Graban says

          There’s sometimes too much focus on “we need to implement Lean.”


          I always push organizations to understand this. What problems are they trying to solve. What goals are they needing to meet?

          I wish Lean were seen as more strategic by organizations… in different ways… and not just about cost.

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