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The Failure of Lean: Part 2 (The Lean Consulting Industry)

Jun 18, 2015 | Posted by Matt Elson

After a rather long break (sorry about that…need to work on my heijunka process for writing), I’m going to pick up on the conversation from my previous post: Cars, CT Scans & Cashiers: The Failure of Lean.

“Lean” fails because it is almost always an application of tools, processes and approaches.  

We focus instead on developing people’s ability to see things differently, to make improvements and solve problems in their day-to-day jobs (not only during “kaizen events”), as well as increasing leadership’s ability to support that culture.

The Lean Failure Continues

There is mounting evidence and examples of how the lean consulting industry continues to over promise and under deliver, in multiple industries, cultures and languages:

  • Examples of miss-placed “cookie cutter” approaches to “lean”, here.
  • A backlash from front-line team members, who have only been exposed to the “dark side of lean”, here.  (en francais)
  • Another example of “LAME” (to borrow an excellent phrase from Mark Graban), here.

When I read comments like “militaristic” and “lack of respect” associated with true continuous improvement, my sense is that things are very badly off track from true north thinking.

What is “Lean” Anyway?

Some of my previous posts have pointed out some short comings with the lean movement, even taking aim at the word itself (this may have something to do with my background…while at Toyota, I never even heard nor knew of the word…maybe that has stuck with me over the years).  Reflecting on that, I may have actually been falling into the same trap as some of the “mechanical” approaches that I have been lamenting about.

This reflection came to me during a conversation with a mentor of mine who was concerned about the use of a particular piece of technology (that we have been testing to decrease the lead time for analysis).  My comment was “Just because others haven’t been trained on how to use a hammer, doesn’t mean that I won’t use one if I need to.”

I guess it doesn’t really matter what you call it: TPS, continuous improvement or a cat named Bob…as long as this is recognized as an integrated operations management system, based on a culture of people development.  NOT tools.

An Integrated System

A colleague recently put it well:  “The system is like a triangle…all of the sides support each other.  Without all of the sides, the triangle will collapse.”

This system is based around:

TPS Triangle


  • The development of people (through “learning by doing”, NOT through seminars or workshops) to think about their jobs in a different way, and look for ways to make it better everyday



  • A systematic approach to increasing leadership capability to lead in this culture, through repetitive learning or kata


It is not only unlikely, but impossible for a human being to learn through watching a seminar, webinar or through study alone.  I have Mike Rother to thank for helping make this connection for me during a recent conversation in Quebec City.  (Please be sure to check out Mike’s excellent site here…lots of great information and background on how to make scientific thinkers our of us all!). To learn, we need a coach to help us practice….repeatedly!

So Why the Continued “Toolkit” Approach?

Despite all of this, we continue to see things like “Get Certified Online for only $299”, etc. etc.  If we have established that this toolkit approach doesn’t (CAN’T) work, then why are some still trying this method?

Is it the ease of “selling” something small, discreet and “snackable”?

It’s also so pretty easy to understand: “Everybody, everyday doing kaizen.”  Unleashing the limitless potential of people through developing their “kaizen eyes”.

That sounds pretty straight forward doesn’t it?


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