Don’t Fool Yourself: The 7 Most Common Lean Mistakes


“Well, I’m sure you meant well.”

Those are definitely words you’ll never hear from an unsatisfied customer. Unfortunately, intent or effort means little in manufacturing, where customers rely on their vendors to deliver quality products, right on time. Unfortunately, even the best-intentioned lean implementations can go awry with the wrong attitudes, visual management systems, and knowledge of lean principles. As industry organization MAS highlights, “lean is not a quick fix, and you can’t pick and choose the tools you use.”

To help you avoid some of the biggest pitfalls of lean implementations, here are some of the mistakes I’ve seen most often at well-intentioned organizations:

1. Meaningless Metrics

Visual management systems and documenting your processes are crucial. However, organizations will too-often adopt the idea of measurement with total enthusiasm and few results. Measurement and metrics are ineffective and anti-lean if you’re:

  • Spending more time reading reports than engaged at the worksite

  • Losing crucial manager time and development due to managing reporting

  • Measuring the wrong things entirely

For more information on effective measurement, see our blog A Closer Look at Visual Management Systems.

2. Lack of Follow-Up

You cannot achieve kaizen, continual improvement, unless your culture supports implementation of new ideas and best practices. Countless organizations have engaged their employees in suggesting improvements, but failed to build follow-up and implementation into their processes. Every employee must be responsible for seeing that positive changes are actually made.

3. Not Recording Changes

Failing to document newly-developed processes and procedures is among the most common (and devastating!) mistakes. Companies may jump into a lean implementation with both feet, and get so caught up in making changes they fail to document. A lack of standardization leads to excess motion, variability in processes, and ultimately, unhappy customers. Document along the way!

4. Believing Lean is Only for Manufacturing

Truly lean organizations don’t just focus on their manufacturing processes. It’s clear these are crucial, and it’s wise to focus effort on delivering benefits to your customers. However, every level of your organization must adopt your new values in order to thrive. Everyone from your managers to accounting should be actively involved in these processes.

5. Not Empowering Your Associates

Lean isn’t simple. If it were, it wouldn’t be such a powerful tool for improving efficiency in your organization. However, it’s downright dangerous to assume that your associates won’t add value to your lean processes.

Individuals closest to the worksite are often responsible for suggesting the most critical improvements. Besides, squandering human talent is a form of organizational waste.

6. Not Addressing Resistance to Change

Change is extraordinarily difficult, particularly for well-established organizations. However, during the early stages of your lean implementation, you should anticipate resistance and respond appropriately. Get to the root cause, and apply a permanent fix, which can include providing some of the following perspectives to your employees:

  • Highlighting what’s in it for them

  • Providing coaching to managers and cross-training to associates

  • Building relationships of trust and encouraging employees to take ownership

7. Believing a Transformation Will Be Simple

Lean tools can significantly improve your company, but they won’t transform it from the inside-out. In order to see outstanding improvements, you’ve got to truly infuse your company with a lean perspective. Lean expert Ulises Pabon highlights that too many organizations bet on a lean transformation overnight, and fail to understand that enormous changes can take significant time and effort.

Have you ever encountered a failed lean implementation? What do you think were some of the worst mistakes made along the way?


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