The Horrors of Lean

Guest Post by Mike Loughrin, CEO for Transformance Advisors

Pondering Failure

With the excitement of Halloween in the air, different thoughts sneak into my mind.

One topic, I’ve been pondering, is how too many organizations struggle with their lean transformation and find themselves in the category known as “we tried that and it didn’t work.”

Looking back at the many organizations I have visited, and the people I’ve met along my lean journey, I’ve discovered a few themes which identify why some lean transformation programs end up in the ditch. What I have discovered, is there are 5 common traps which come up, time and again, from the people in the “it didn’t work” category.

I know my list will make a few lean enthusiasts angry. Those who think they know-it-all and don’t want their thinking challenged should not read any further.

For those with the courage to proceed, let’s explore what is happening with each of the common traps which lead to failure.

5 Horrors

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ll call the things, which are often at the scene of a failed lean transformation, the 5 horrors of lean. They are horrors, because they are supposed to be the keys to success, but they turn into the instruments of failure.

You can think of these horrors as possessing a split personality, just like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If the timing of change is not right, implementation is weak, or your transformation program is not up to the challenge, then any one of the 5 horrors of lean will take you down.

Read on, if you are ready. The 5 horrors which behave like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are:

  1. The 5S System
  2. Plan Do Check Act
  3. A3 Problem Solving
  4. Lean Six Sigma
  5. Low Hanging Fruit

Let’s look closer at each one.

The 5S System – AKA Dracula

Some people claim 5S is a fundamental element of all lean programs and it needs to be the first thing everyone does.

The old joke proclaims: “it’s fun and easy to do The 3S System.” Yes, the first three steps – sort, stabilize, and shine – are fun and easy. But many have found the last 2 steps – standardize and sustain – are a real bear to tackle.

While I have not taken a statistically valid sample, I’m going to put out a hypothesis: “95% of people fail at their first attempt to implement The 5S System.” I’ve seen the evidence of 5S failures in most organizations who tried and failed with lean. Why would anyone recommend you begin your lean transformation with a project which requires a big cultural shift and has a very small chance of success? Why start with failure!

The 5S System is a great lean tool. But the last two steps require an organization to live and breathe standardization and sustainability. This is why The 5S System is one of the 5 horrors of lean. Don’t be fooled by the lean charlatans who tell you 5S needs to be your first lean project.

The 5S System requires cultural maturity. It should only be attempted when workers realize they need to create an organized workplace.

Find out more at 5S System Failures.

Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) – Ogre

Many people claim PDCA is very easy for everyone to use and it can be used everyday for every problem. This is clearly a violation of the common sense notion which tells us “if all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.”

PDCA is said to have originated as the Shewart Cycle, named after the concept originator Walter Shewart. The spirit of the technique is to leverage the scientific method concept of hypothesis, experiment, and evaluation. Hypothesis = Plan, Experiment = Do, and Evaluation = Check. Then, if all is well, you can Act.

Confusion begins with the first step. The Plan step can be 75% of the effort. Yet most teams rush to action and don’t make a great plan. The second step of Do is often viewed as implementation (Just Do It) and ignores the original intent to experiment. Check will often be attempts to correct faulty things which have already been implemented. Finally, Act is just confusing, as the team has already implemented something during the Do step and began firefighting during the Check step. Act must mean we “act like everything is fine.”

PDCA could be a great technique for problem solving teams. Unfortunately, PDCA has evolved through the years and some confusion has crept into the DNA. The steps mean different things to different people. There is nothing worse than a team of people confused about what to do next. This is why PDCA is one of the 5 horrors of lean. Don’t be mislead by the lean charlatans who tell you PDCA is an easy tool everyone can master in 15 minutes.

Avoid confusion and frustration by training everyone on what to do during each step.

Find out more at What is Plan Do Check Act?

A3 Problem Solving – AKA Devil

Another lean technique which is often pitched as easy to learn, easy to do, and something you can use everyday is called A3 Problem Solving. As with other “easy” things you need to do, this technique has proven to be very challenging.

A3 Problem Solving gets it’s name from the size of paper used in Japan. It is most famously used by Toyota. An excellent book by John Shook, called Managing to Learn, describes how Toyota practices this technique using the two roles of coach and problem solver. The goal of this approach is for experienced coaches to “create an organization populated with problem solvers.” In the Toyota model, the format of information on the A3 paper is important, but it is not the secret sauce.

Unfortunately, lean trainers and charlatans, in the United States, tend to focus on the A3 paper. They forget, or do not know, how coaching is the most important part. This leads to many organizations struggling, with A3 Problem Solving, because they are not leveraging the coach and problem solver roles. They simply send out rookie problem solvers to face the wolves alone. I met with one company who had been struggling with A3 Problem Solving for several years. They had never learned about the coaching and problem solver roles.

A3 problem solving, with coaching, is an exceptional technique for addressing complex problems. However, it is an awful idea to think you can develop your people into competent problem solvers without the aid of a coach. This is why A3 Problem Solving is one of the 5 horrors of lean. Don’t buy the claims of easy this and easy that.

Discover success by using the coach and problem solver approach.

Find out more at Why Do A3 Problem Solving Efforts Fail?

Lean Six Sigma – AKA Frankenstein

I have been very comfortable knowing lean focuses on eliminating waste and six sigma focuses on reducing variation. What does lean six sigma focus on? Is it a jack of all trades and a master of none? Ouch to that master of none possibility!

In an ideal world, we would blend the key concepts, tools, and approaches for lean and six sigma to create a hybrid super improvement program. My experience, in talking with those who claim to be lean six sigma experts, is they are 95% six sigma. I have not found the elusive expert who has blended the two improvement programs into a hybrid super improvement program.

One unfortunate situation appears common and growing. This is a race to the bottom, where people do their own lean six sigma approach. They cut corners on the DMAIC steps from six sigma, or don’t work the cultural transformation aspect from lean. In essence, they just light their hair on fire and run around creating chaos.

Lean is a great improvement program. Six sigma is also a great improvement program. Lean six sigma is just a Frankenstein. A little bit of lean and a little bit of six sigma. This is why lean six sigma is one of the 5 horrors of lean. Organizations doing lean six sigma, are not doing lean, and they are not doing six sigma. They may have lots of tools, but they do not have a solid methodology.

If your goal is to craft a sustainable organization, then stick with lean. Use six sigma only for those difficult challenges requiring rigorous statistical analysis and a focus on defects per opportunity to have a defect.

Find out more at What is Lean Six Sigma?

Low Hanging Fruit – AKA Grim Reaper

The best way to start an organizational improvement program is choose a methodology, get education, and attack the easy stuff known as low hanging fruit. This approach brings rapid results, provides proof of concept, and funds more to come.

A challenge arises as the low hanging fruit is picked and you must begin to work the more difficult challenges. This higher hanging fruit is often cross-functional, more complex, and expensive to address. These complex challenges may come 2 or 3 years after the launch of your improvement program.

The trap many fall into is how the projects involving low hanging fruit can be successful without using the knowledge and techniques taught in your long ago certification classes. Things like charters, champions, budgets, and following systematic steps have gone unused or have been simplified to the point where those skills are rusty from lack of use.

Picking the low hanging is great and very rewarding. The trap occurs when an organization does not reinvest in education to up-their-game when the time comes to climb higher. Taking on complex challenges without “sharpening the saw” will often lead to failure and disappointment. This time of transition is dangerous and why low hanging fruit is one of the 5 horrors of lean.

The answer is “yes”; you should pick the low hanging fruit. But, when you need to reach higher, it’s time to remember many of your skills are rusty. It’s time for a refresher on the tools required for those bigger more challenging projects.

Find out more at The Dangers of Low Hanging Fruit.


The landscape is littered with too many organizations who have failed in their attempt to make a lean transformation. Those who made a sincere attempt have often been victimized by the same techniques and concepts which have propelled others to success.

There are 5 common traps which work great for some and spell doom for others. In a nod to Halloween, I have called these traps the 5 horrors of lean.

Fortunately, you can avoid disaster:

  • Introduce 5S when workers realize they need to create an organized workplace
  • Train everyone on what to do during each step in Plan Do Check Act
  • Use the coach and problem solver roles for A3 Problem Solving
  • Stick with lean and don’t muddy the waters with lean six sigma hype
  • Recognize you need to up your game when the low hanging fruit is gone

Each of the 5 horrors of lean can be avoided without pounding a silver stake into some creature’s heart!

About Mike Loughrin

Mick Loughrin

Mike is passionate about helping people create sustainable organizations. He brings exceptional experience in both industry and consulting services and has helped organizations such as Levi Strauss, Warner Home Video, Lexmark, and Sweetheart Cup improve their performance. Mike teaches for Louisiana State University Shreveport and Loyola University Chicago.

Using a balanced approach to defining strategy, improving processes, and leveraging the appropriate technology, he keeps the focus on ROI and delivers results by leveraging skills in leadership, knowledge transfer, project management, and the application of best practices. As a frequent speaker at conferences and other educational events, he provides informative and energizing presentations by leveraging his passion for excellence.

Keeping a commitment to a balanced life, Mike loves downhill skiing, bicycle rides, and hiking in the mountains. See one or more of his trails of the month, such as Tomorrow River or Little Switzerland.

Transformation Advisors is a sponsor of the 2023 Colorado Lean Summit.

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