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Why Lean implementations don’t typically lead to a sustained Continuous Improvement culture

​Over the past 30 years my colleagues and I have come across many hundreds of initiatives and implementations branded as TPS, WCM, Lean and/or BPR in all manner of enterprises and sectors. Whether led and resourced internally or driven by consultants, what we have seen invariably falls into one of 3 categories: the great, the mediocre and the downright ugly; with the mediocre being the norm.

The ugly category is usually characterised by short term cost-cutting through application of simplistic headcount reduction targets, without any real process redesign or performance improvement to release resources. This naturally results in fewer, more highly stressed staff remaining to operate processes which are now even more dysfunctional than before, so it is no surprise that such approaches can rapidly destroy overall business performance. But leaving such extreme short-sightedness aside, what is it that distinguishes the bulk of the mediocre outcomes from the few truly great examples?

We would argue that a relatively successful transformation of certain key business processes to higher levels of performance should be seen as a mediocre outcome whenever it is followed by a flatline (or even a decline). A truly great initiative should achieve such transformation, but at the same time also create a sustained culture of continuous improvement and innovation. This is the ideal outcome which positions the enterprise to not only improve current performance further but also to innovate with the agility required to suit constant and rapid changes in their business environment and in the needs of their customers. The disruptive events of the last 2 years have brought this ideal into even sharper focus.

So why do so many initiatives only achieve mediocre outcomes and fail to create a sustained culture of continuous improvement and innovation? There are two classic problems / errors which we have seen most often repeated (and if we’re honest we’ve all committed these errors at some point in our own careers as improvement professionals!)

Problem 1: Improvement cycles are not practised or coached

  • A focus on implementations of Lean tools only–valid as they may be – without the regular habit of practicing scientific improvement cycles (improvement kata) will not create an improvement culture.
  • The focus on tools alone leads to Lean being seen as the terrain of experts and only ‘something that happens in operations’.
  • When experts teach Lean tools in a classroom instead of providing coaching in the practice of improvement cycles, all learning is quickly forgotten. Indeed training staff ‘in Lean’ without coaching and without practice of improvement cycles is virtually worthless.
  • Experts focused on tools alone naturally go after ‘low hanging fruit’ and quick step changes / transformations but then no further improvement or innovation follows – especially if they then leave the site – since no broad improvement skill base has been created to leave behind.

Experts should rather be employed as a resource pulled in as needed to support and coach the wider employee teams in the practice of scientific improvement cycles. They need to get out and practice the techniques repeatedly until they become second nature.  Likewise, the habit of scientific improvement thinking is acquired through practical repetition of improvement cycles, guided by an experienced coach to create a sustained improvement culture.

Fortunately, KaizApp has revolutionised the practicality of widespread improvement coaching, with all relevant information instantly available at the coaches’ fingertips; allowing for far more efficient and effective coaching sessions, whether on-site or remote. In addition, all improvements are always instantly presentation-ready, allowing a whole new level of team collaboration across shifts, sites and countries to deliver more ambitious, innovative and impactful improvements more quickly.

Problem 2: Senior leaders are not engaged in improvements

  • Too often, Lean implementations start out in the wrong place – on the shopfloor, with lots of training of front level employees in improvement tools and techniques.
  • This is typically much too slow to demonstrate any real tangible benefits in quality or service (let alone ROI!) so the C-suite soon lose interest and may even cut the ‘Lean training’ / CI budget.
  • Without the engagement of senior leaders, initiatives lack strategic direction. Too often, the Lean experts are perceived to be working on ‘nice to haves’; improving non-bottleneck areas with no overall benefit to the business.
  • The larger the business, the more remote the leaders are from front-line improvement initiatives, which remain largely invisible to them.
  • Improvement leaders spend far too much of their time on data gathering and admin to try to report progress upwards, but even then C-suite cynicism remains.


The practice of improvement cycles needs to be led and modelled from top down and not bottom up, beginning at the leader level. Once leaders have practical experience of the value they themselves can deliver in this manner, then modelling and coaching this with their direct reports becomes the obvious next step. In this manner, the regular habit of scientific improvement thinking can be cascaded gradually down through the organisation to create a sustained culture of Continuous Improvement.

Of course, this works even better if senior leaders have full visibility and control of improvement activities from top to bottom, helping to set strategic priorities. With KaizApp, all improvements are fully visible globally and ROI is tracked at every level. Comprehensive search with multi-language capability ensures best practices are widely shared and replicated across entire enterprises; multiplying the value of every good innovation.