Lean and Six Sigma: Why All the Failures?

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It has long been a puzzle why so many Lean and Six Sigma implementations, launched with enthusiasm, fanfare, and abundant resources, fall short of expectations or, even worse, simply fail. Satya S. Chakravorty, professor of operations management at Kennesaw State University and a seasoned Six Sigma/Lean practitioner, addresses this question in a recent Wall Street Journal article (January 25, 2010) : “Where Process-Improvement Projects Go Wrong”.

Chakravorty and his colleagues studied process improvement efforts in large companies over five years, and found that they tend to go through three stages: first, a “stretching” phase, led by an expert or consultant, in which substantial gains are made and goals reached, with management offering support and encouragement; second, a “yielding” period, in which management’s attention moves elsewhere and the enthusiasm wanes; and third, a “failing” stage, with the expert long gone and the training forgotten, in which the organization regresses to its old habits and performance levels.

In his article, Chakravorty refers both to “Lean” and to “Six Sigma”, but it appears that most of his focus and attention is on Six Sigma projects. Speaking of one case study, he writes: “With the departure of the Six Sigma expert, the teams at the aerospace company lost their objective voice and the person who performed the sophisticated statistical analysis that allowed them to prioritize the tasks that most affected performance.”

Without opening a debate on the relative scope, content and merits of Lean vs. Six Sigma, we would offer a few observations. The failed improvement programs all appeared to be heavily dependent on outside (Six Sigma) experts, who, of course, eventually left or moved on. Unable to use the Six Sigma methodologies on their own, the teams bogged down and lost their sense of ownership for the project. Worse, they came under pressure to keep up their normal production quotas – a clear signal of management’s divided priorities. The programs added work (the statistical analysis) to the daily schedule, rather than emphasizing how to eliminate waste and improve work methods. Finally, there was no mention of building the Kaizen or Continuous Improvement culture so crucial to a successful Lean transformation.

Chakravorty offers four lessons learned from his team’s research. First, teams, especially in Six Sigma projects, need long-term support from the outside expert or consultant. (We urge that training and certification of in-house resources take place much earlier on the time line.) Second, performance appraisals and incentives must be tied to successful outcomes of the improvement projects. Third, implementation teams should be relatively small – no more than six to nine members – and their timelines brisk and short. And finally, executives must leave their observation posts and actually participate in the projects.

We at Leonardo Group Americas are often asked for our own top strategies for sustaining long-term Lean improvements. Based on experience in hundreds of engagements, and coming more from a Lean rather than Six Sigma perspective, we emphasize the following five for optimizing the work, eliminating waste, building buy-in, and moving continuously towards perfection:

1) Start with a bold vision for the enterprise – a vision articulated from the top and led forward by management’s example.

2) Follow a reliable Lean Roadmap so that your implementation completes all the key work steps in the most effective sequence.

3) Since Lean is all about creating Value as defined by the customer, focus your thinking and planning on the Value Streams – optimizing their flow, quality and responsiveness.

4) Train your internal resources, and encourage your top managers to know Lean well enough to teach and implement it themselves.

5) Sustain your Lean gains with robust Continuous Improvement and Kaizen activities, backed up by systematic reviews and audits.

Changing behaviors, habits and attitudes in the workplace is challenging at best. But it can be done – the journey is exciting – and the long-term rewards are great for everyone involved.


“Where Process Improvement Projects Go Wrong”, Satya S. Chakravorty, The Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2010.

“An Implementation Model for Lean Programmes”, Satya S. Chakravorty, European Journal of Industrial Engineering, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2010.

How to Prevent Lean Implementation Failures: 10 Reasons Why Failures Occur, Larry Rubrich, WCM Associates, 2004.

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