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Jon Miller

Six Sigma

10 Common Mistakes When Starting a Lean Transformation

Having too much or too little information, overplanning, and shirking difficult conversations

Published: Thursday, October 21, 2010 - 14:32

People can make plenty of mistakes when launching a lean enterprise transformation. Interestingly, many of these mistakes are similar if not identical to those made by entrepreneurs when starting a business. Perhaps these mistakes are generic enough to be widely applicable and not specific to lean or start-ups.


1. Starting without professional help. It’s easier to build a sustainable business transformation on a foundation of others’ knowledge and experience. In addition to this general caveat, there are plenty of industry- and application-specific dos and don’ts at each phase of a lean implementation. Ask for help, visit a local company known for being steps ahead of you, or pay for some time with a person who has a head full of tales from the lean journey.

2. Looking in too many places for advice. An easy but damaging habit is to keep reading, searching, attending seminars, or asking questions until you finally “get it” or feel capable to commence. Provided that controlled failure for the purpose of learning is allowed within your organization, stop researching and try something. The best way to judge the usefulness of advice is to test it immediately in real life. Most often the people who work in the places where you tested your ideas will tell you why it didn’t work and what needs to be done to make it work.

3. Focusing on education or solutions at the expense of communication. The people who lead lean efforts are typically engineers, operations people, or human resource administrators; rarely are they marketing, sales, or corporate communications people. The former are solution- or education-oriented, while the latter excel at communication and persuasion. Both are vital throughout a change process. Think of it as the relationship between the product-development and the marketing teams; the former tests the ideas it believes will work in the market while the latter attempts to build excitement and support for these ideas, but also feeds back to the development team the voice of the customer.

4. Not talking to customers. Will the changes you make matter to customers? Are there specific improvements to delivery, quality, or pricing that could make a significant difference in how customers value you? Do customers have any expertise in lean that they are willing to give or lend? Are your customers making any plans (e.g., a new line design or a ramp down of certain products) that could affect and therefore be considered as part of your lean transformation? One of the biggest wastes associated with value-stream mapping is “mapping what we think the customer values” as opposed to the actual customer-defined value.

5. Having too little money in the budget. Many lean transformations start by taking the kaizen mantra of “no money, no space, no excuses” too literally. No water can be drawn up a pump that is completely dry. Below a certain budget level, even discussing a lean transformation becomes a waste of time. This is typically a symptom of business instability preventing investment, a misunderstanding of the lean transformation’s scope and duration, or a lack of serious commitment on the part of the leadership. In the first case the solution may be to design an intervention that stabilizes and creates capacity, cash, or room in the budget for some long-term system redesign work. In the second case, I refer you to mistake No. 1 on this list. In the third case, the options are education, waiting 3 to 5 years for a new CEO, or moving on to a firm with more enlightened leadership.

6. Having too much money in the budget. It may seem like this never happens, but it does. Over-funded lean projects get everything on the wish list, including paying for a lot of bad quality advice simply because it can be. This is where the misconception lurks that it is less embarrassing to fail spectacularly with other people’s money than to fail with a small budget and a lot of sweat equity. Here the parallels to startup businesses, venture capital, and wasteful behavior are strong. Creativity over capital, always.

7. Targeting a scope that is too small. It may seem like too small is better than too big when it comes to change efforts, and this is true. Sayings like, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew” are common and much heeded. Voices of reason can help keep the scope of a pilot project or the scheme of a demonstration from getting too big. Lack of funds, people, time, or ideas are all limiting factors. But when the scope is made too small for the sake of being conservative, the opportunity to learn can be lost. As the saying goes, “No problem is a problem.” A small-scale experiment that is very successful may lull lean leaders into a false sense of confidence and security only to have it shattered when the implementation expands in scope. Target a scope big enough to learn what you need to learn, but not much bigger.

8. Not having a plan to realize the savings. Not all kaizen events do or should have an airtight business plan to justify the effort. Small and quick kaizen should be done for no other reason than to make the work visibly simpler and to keep people’s minds engaged on improving the work. On the other hand, there’s no excuse for having no plan to realize the savings once gains are apparent. This includes recognizing up front that any resources that are freed as a result of improvement, including labor, must result in direct or indirect cost reduction. This can be a difficult conversation in some situations but it’s a discussion better to be had earlier than later in the process.

9. Too much planning, not enough learning. Many times leaders hesitate to invest in education and training, consultancy support, benchmarking visits to other companies, pilot projects, or whatever the first steps may be. Whether it be for political reasons (who gets credit if this works, who gets the blame if not?) or budget reasons (which cost centers will pay for this?), too many months are spent in the “planning” phase rather than trying something, learning from it, and adjusting the plan. Yes, mistake No. 9 is a bit of the chicken or the egg. On the one hand, lean enterprise transformation is about getting really good at turning the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle. On the other hand it takes putting one’s hand on the PDCA wheel and giving it a crank to induce learning. Courage, trust, and the continuity of leadership vision propel planning to learning.

10. Ignoring the informal distribution network. The distribution network of knowledge, ideas, and skills is both informal and formal within an organization. Too often the informal network is ignored. Lean champions, kaizen managers, Six Sigma Black Belts or other so-called experts are given the responsibility for distributing (i.e., teaching) the knowledge and experience gained from successful pilots or starter projects. Everyone in an organization actively or passively teaches everyone else through their words, actions, and behaviors. If a team member does not follow standard work, they are teaching us that there are problems with it. If the engineer responds and corrects the process in a timely fashion, this also teaches team norms. The manager who daily checks the visuals on his gemba for abnormalities is leading by example. An important role to fulfill within the formal distribution network is to activate an informal distribution network with ideas.

Mistakes should be welcomed if they can—be afforded—be learned from—and are not on the list of common mistakes handed to you by the professional help you hired. There’s no sense in paying for advice unless it’s used. Even the advice in this column isn’t free; I’ve already prepaid for everyone.

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About The Author

Jon Miller’s picture

Jon Miller

Jon Miller is co-founder of Gemba Research LLC where he leads development efforts including consulting solutions, training materials, and establishing internal consulting standards. Miller was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Miller was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno. Since 1998 he has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. Miller has taught kaizen in 15 countries for more than 15 years. He is a frequent contributor of articles to a variety of publications and written more than 800 articles on lean manufacturing, kaizen, and the Toyota Production System on Gemba’s blog.