What is the current status of your Lean/CI initiatives?  It might be helpful to think about the answer to this question in terms of a simple normal curve.  The majority of organizations are in the middle, having achieved mixed successes but are struggling and trying to figure out how they evolve these initial successes to a higher level of sustainable results.  There’s a small group of very successful Lean/CI organizations to the left, and a small group to the right who have either abandoned or are failing miserably with Lean/CI.  But let’s be candid with the current dilemma of Lean/CI in most organizations.  Many corporate Lean/CI initiatives have been on the decline for the past decade.  There’s a good chance that you are one of these organizations.

What happened?  Most organizations experienced early successes applying Lean/CI to their low hanging fruit opportunities.  Today the low hanging fruit has dried up as the world is full of many more complex operating issues. Lean/CI initiatives have not evolved with the times.  In far too many organizations, leadership and people are blindly and deeply rooted into their daily accepted Lean routines, TPS improvements, symbolic storyboards and beautification exercises, Shingo lingo, GEMBA walks and KATA sonatas, and refuse to change course.  Other organizations are grossly overloaded, exhausted, and more disengaged with formal CI initiatives and seem to continue on to other more pressing firefighting issues of the moment.  Wow, these are bold statements, but the true fact is leaders and their organizations continue to struggle with this decline in Lean and strategic improvement in general.

Today the low hanging fruit has dried up as the world is full of many more complex operating issues. Lean/CI initiatives have not evolved with the times.


A very high percentage of Lean/CI initiatives are not meeting leadership’s expectations.  This dilemma is centered around challenges with creative and adaptive leadership, organizational commitment and full engagement, continuous talent development, and constantly focusing on the right things to produce the right desired results.  In the absence of these key success factors, organizations are both uncomfortable and politically reluctant to think outside of their dominant Lean/CI operating model.  Instead they focus too much on the accepted (and expected) process and mechanics of their current model, and not enough on evolving customer requirements and operating model innovation.  Think about this – The world changes rapidly, yet many Lean/CI initiatives have remained the same for decades.

To achieve greater operating results with Lean and strategic improvement, executives must first:

  • Step back and acknowledge the victories and shortfalls of their current initiatives;
  • Recognize the gaps between their current situation and where they need to go to achieve new breakthrough opportunities for improvement;
  • Develop a renewed and detailed approach that re-points their Lean/CI planning, deployment, and execution approach for greater success;
  • Connect Lean/CI directly to the annual business plan and align daily execution activities  to achieve the right desired results;
  • Create a more real time, closed-loop performance management system to proactively  reset the right priorities, gauge ongoing progress, and make the necessary course corrections for continuous success.

Most organizations fail to evolve, discover, and invent the full potential of their future Lean/CI initiatives.  This dilemma can be either a permanent problem or a temporary bump in the road in the grander philosophy and correct practice of continuous improvement. The difference between the two is a leadership choice.  The “larger process” of how we improve how we improve must always keep pace with ever evolving customer and market needs, changing business requirements, and cultural/talent development essentials.


Symptoms of Lean/CI Underperformance

Candor is a prerequisite to change leadership.  If you’re serious about turning your present Lean/CI underperformance around, you can’t pretend that mediocre performance is great performance.  Here are a few common observations to confirm the frustrating challenges of Lean/CI initiatives in most organizations.  These conditions detract from evolving Lean/CI to a higher order business system of strategic improvement.


Creative change leadership is weak.

The leadership of major change is often hasty and impatient, where the focus is more on steering and rolling out the identical program content across the organization and across different business units.  More importance is placed on adherence to the standard program and making sure that everyone is visibly replicating the same activities.  Less importance is placed on creatively adapting the concepts to the right critical business challenges and developing people’s competencies to think and practice creative problem solving.  Hence, Lean/CI fails to stick as the cultural standard of excellence.  Sustainable success involves much more than following the standard protocol of Lean/CI methodologies, tools, storyboards, and templates.

Lack of adapting and aligning Lean/CI to critical business requirements and cultural development needs. 

We visit with many organizations and have active dialogues on LinkedIn and other social media sites.  What do you see?  There’s a lot of people talking the theory, methodologies and tools of a Lean Business System and following the right perceived recipes for success.  Others are reading about and quickly attempting to mimic Toyota and other Lean/CI organizations.  “It’s all great stuff and we gotta do this,” right?   The result is a complex “swamp” of everyone running with their own perceived and accepted Lean/CI approach while totally missing and skipping the notion and tough work of architecting and deploying a true business systems approach to strategic improvement “in your own way.  Hence, Lean/CI is misunderstood, misguided, confusing, and often a part-time effort to the organization.

Reluctance to change the strategy and approach to Lean/CI that has been in place for years.

There is no place for politics, emotions, debates about various methodologies, blindly following established and/or accepted routines, or hanging on to old habits in continuous improvement.  The politics of doing Lean/CI and following the established religion du jour is very real in organizations.  People do not want to stop or criticize things and make waves so they keep the process that isn’t working going.  So they engage in Lean/CI created activity – Activities that follow the expected protocol and are perceived as value-adding but are really additional wastes.  This visible going through the motions keeps everyone happy but achieves mediocre results and cultural acceptance.


Operating strategy does not include constancy of purpose. 

Over time, many organizations experience leadership changes, restarts, different directives, and a totally confused organization.  This is reality, not excuses . . . But recognize that it all happens and takes your Lean and strategic improvement initiatives off the tracks. Constancy of purpose is a timeless best practice to continuously reset, communicate, reinforce,  and reaffirm Lean/CI leadership when these other natural changes occur.  Constancy of purpose is the continuous casualty in favor of short-term performance.

Lean/CI is managed as a static improvement process instead of a broader, true business system. 

Customer expectations, business requirements, cultural development needs, and the manufacturing vs. knowledge work content changes over time.  Yet many organizations are deeply rooted in deploying Lean/CI in the production area with methodologies that have not changed with the times.  This creates Lean/CI complacency, or just going through the motions and expecting greater and greater results.  The organization’s Business System is symbolic and exists in name only.

Lean/CI is too focused on production.

Manufacturing is the easiest environment to apply Lean/CI, but it is beginning to have a lesser impact on the business. The largest opportunities in organizations exist in the integrated network of professional, knowledge-based transactional processes.  These processes are full of hidden, unknown, undisclosed, and undiscovered opportunities for improvement.   Examples include digitization, sales and marketing, program management, supply chain management and procurement, engineering and new product development, integrated product and process design, customer service, quality and compliance management, human resource management, talent development, and the like.  Decisions made in these areas are often irreversible in terms of operating issues in manufacturing.  Adapting Lean/CI to these complex knowledge processes requires much deeper forensics experience and are often avoided/excluded from an organization’s business system approach to improvement.


So the big question – Do you want to remain in the stalled majority, or do you want to turn things around?  It takes bold leadership that objectively acknowledges the positives and detractors of current conditions, recognizes the need to do something different and better, and is open to a renewed implementation approach.  The answer is simple but not easy.  In fact, turning a declining Lean/CI initiative around is extremely complex from a change leadership, integrated business system, and renewed cultural perspective.


How to Rethink, Redefine, Realign, and Redeploy the Journey

Face it – The majority of organizations are not getting results they are entitled to with Lean and strategic improvement.  You’re not alone, the majority of organizations are here.  It’s only bad if you don’t do something about your situation.  Continuing to follow your existing Lean/CI model and expecting different results is not the answer.  Continuing to superficially mimic Toyota and the stalled activities of other organizations is not the answer.  You can change this.  As we mentioned earlier, it is first and foremost a leadership choice.  If organizations wish to achieve greater results (that they deserve and are entitled to), the executive team must be willing to step back and rethink, redefine, realign, and redeploy their journey.

This is easier said than done and implemented.  This requires leadership and technical interventions, and injections of new thinking/talent to get back on the right track.  Since many organizations have been stuck in this decline mode for a while, the best approach is to engage outside expertise with the knowledge, experience, and proven track record of turning your situation around.




Below is our real world, common sense guidance for rethinking, redefining, realigning, and redeploying your Lean/CI journey.


  1. Acknowledge and accept that you’re not getting what you expected or need to achieve from your Lean and CI initiatives.  Forget about politics, debates on methodologies, established or currently accepted routines, the mechanics of Lean/CI, etc.  Stop doing the same things and expecting different results.  Put the keys down, and rethink your journey – in your own way.
  2. Recognize the need to do something different.  More of the same is not working.  Mimicking what others are doing is not working.  Success is more than going through the standard routines.  Admit that your organization needs help and new thinking to evolve to a higher order of Lean/CI.  It is much more difficult to achieve success in your own way.
  3. Conduct an objective assessment of current Lean/CI conditions.  This is a detailed diagnostic of your present model initiatives, operating gaps, and missed opportunities.  This detailed task will help reveal the gaps that need review and correction to realign with business objectives.
  4. Seek help from industry recognized experts.   Resetting involves defining the customer experience, and clarifying business improvement and cultural development requirements to achieve renewed customer, financial, and operating success.  The right outside expertise can provide both accelerated confirmation and guidance for new opportunities.
  5. Create a compelling and renewed vision and reason why and how your organization needs to adapt Lean/CI to your business.  Lean/CI must be viewed as the accepted enabling initiatives to achieve business plan and personal success. This step must provide a compelling reason for rethinking, redefining, realigning, and redeploying your journey as an evolutionary step to improved competitiveness and greater operating success.
  6. Develop the renewed Lean/CI road map.  This is a clear implementation plan to chart and align a new Lean/CI course to changing customer, market, business, and talent requirements.  This renewed approach includes the development of new critical core competencies such as digital technologies.
  7. Re-evaluate and reset the organization’s commitment.  Commitment includes the competencies, capabilities, and resources to fully support the Lean/CI road map as a way of life.  Commitment is not a short term token agreement.
  8. Educate the executive team, managers, process owners, and associates.  This is not a train-the-masses exercise but a reinforcement of Lean/CI as a formal business system, reaffirmation of expectations for success, and consequences of poor performance. Adaptive and customized reinforcement education specific to your business system problem-solving needs is critical to success.
  9. Strengthen the organization’s communication, awareness, and reinforcement best practices.  Purpose-Driven Communication assures that Lean/CI initiatives have been clarified, accepted, and realigned for the success. Use different communication protocols to engage and reach different people in the organization. Showcase successes and recognize teams/individuals for the right accomplishments.
  10. Execute the renewed deployment and execution plan.  Prioritize on the highest impact opportunities in the business plan.  Success is not demonstrating all the Lean methodologies and practices known to mankind, but establishing the business system model for solving the right problems with the right approaches to achieve the right desired results – Over and over again.
  11. Establish a Daily/Weekly/Monthly/Annual Leader Standard Work Framework to Measure Continuous Success. Conduct frequent reviews of Lean/CI responsibilities and results vs. business requirements and cultural development needs. Build a closed loop performance management system with the right aligned metrics and reinforce teams and individuals for great performance.  Make the necessary course corrections to achieve continued, sustainable successes.
  12. Build a Strong Problem Solving Culture.  Assure that your organization is framed around creating a culture of no fear and creative problem-solving.  This competency drives the right approaches to Lean/CI.  Going through the motions and hoping for results very common, but is not the right approach.  Breakthrough success is more about building the right attitudes, behaviors, choices, and actions than it is about following the standard recipe of methodologies and tools.


It’s not the end of the world if your Lean/CI initiative has stalled out, declining, or is struggling to deliver true value to the organization . . . As long as you recognize and acknowledge this condition and the need to do something different to achieve different greater results. Easier said than done – Change can be difficult, especially for the internal Lean/CI resources.

Lean/CI has become a commoditized approach to improvement.  If everyone is reading the same books, listening to the same consulting advice, using the same methodologies and tools on the same issues, there is no competitive advantage.  Lean/CI has become a maintenance activity rather than a means of delivering the greatest customer experience and achieving superior operating performance.

You can’t do what everyone else is doing and expect superior results. We refer to this as the Lean Groundhog Dilemma:  If you come out and observe a flurry of Lean/CI activities, then success must be on the way soon.  The answers are not in copying some other organization’s way – It’s not your way, and many of the most critical success factors (e.g., leadership, strategy, culture, organizational dynamics, customer centricity, scalability, human capital, etc. ) are invisible and cannot be copied.  It’s time to stop the variations on the same themes, and realign with an ever changing world with very different expectations of strategic and operational improvement.

Need help?  We do this for a living.

The Center for Excellence in Operations, Inc. (CEO) is engaged with many different clients every day, within a variety of industries, operating environments, and with different Lean/CI and cultural renewal challenges.  We can get your Lean/CI initiatives back on track and operating at a much higher order, daily business system model level.
Contact one of the authors below.  We will be happy to discuss your current situation and needs.



Terence T. Burton is President and Founder of The Center for Excellence in Operations, Inc. (CEO), a management consulting firm specializing in strategic and operational transformation. Terry has four decades of extensive operations and supply chain experience as a hands-on practitioner and executive in private industry, and has led consulting engagements in a wide spectrum of industries, having consulted with over 350 clients in 23 countries on their strategic and operations improvement initiatives. Terry can be reached directly at burton@ceobreakthrough.com


Edward A. Fagundes is the West Coast Practice Director for The Center for Excellence in Operations, Inc. (CEO), with emphasis on serving clients in the West Coast, United States region. Ed’s career spans various leadership roles in general management and as a global business system executive. He has proven expertise and extensive experience with improving business processes, developing lean transformation strategies and plans, leading the implementation of business improvement journeys to address business issues, and implementing enterprise-wide continuous improvement applications. Ed can be reached directly at edfagundes1@yahoo.com.