Why fight about what percentage Lean transformations fail?

If you have been following us on social media or read this blog with any amount of regularity, you know that the habit of throwing out anecdotal Lean failure rates is one of our pet peeves. The internet is littered with articles, blogs and posts that state things like “Industry experts agree…” or “Studies show…” then go on to assign a percentage of Lean failure. Despite any good intentions that may be present, this is wrong… and it needs to stop.

First off – it’s not a fight; it’s about understanding. It’s irresponsible to simply “throw out” a number without having any data to back it up. For a community that’s based largely (if not exclusively) of scientific method thinkers, this should really go without saying. When questioned about these statements, some people have said that their claims are “based upon my experience”. Okay – so maybe that’s true, and maybe that is that person’s particular experience… but is it not also their responsibility to recognize that their experiences, not matter how broad they may be, are but a drop in the ocean compared to the global experience of all of us collectively?

So then, what’s to be gained by citing a certain percentage of Lean failure? Often, this method is used a jumping off point for discussing common pitfalls associated with pursuing Lean methods and behaviors. Those are valid and necessary discussions. Continuous improvement isn’t new – in fact, it’s 100’s if not 1000’s of years old. We may have different terms and tools now, but the premise is the same as it ever was, as are the arguments against it. Things like not having support from the top, or not including the people who do the work in the efforts to make them better are issues that we’ve dealt with seemingly forever. That’s not a Lean problem – it’s a behavior problem.

Which brings us to the biggest issue with citing fake Lean failure rates: it gives skeptics and cynics more ammunition to argue against Lean in the first place, which in turn makes Lean engagement for we Lean practitioners that much harder. The irony in this cannot be overlooked – to claim a high Lean failure rate and blame it on a specific set of issues (i.e. poor support from upper management) ignores the fact that the mere claim of a high Lean failure rate in and of itself gives those same people more excuses to not engage with Lean! If a so-called “industry expert” with 1000’s of followers on LinkedIn publishes an article that claims an 85% Lean transformation failure rate, why would any manager, who is considering undertaking a Lean transformation himself/herself want to engage with it, knowing that it will take a lot of time, effort and money while having a mere 15% chance at success? Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

This Business Insider article from almost 10 years ago sums it up pretty well. The author found basically the same thing that what we found when we went looking for this answer in the Lean community: “73.6% of statistics are made up”. It’s true. Google it.

This article from Heather Stagl makes the same argument we do from the Organizational Change persepctive, and includes citations for further research that’s been done that all debunk these failure rate claims.

So why is it this way? Why is it so prevalent to toss out some high number like “70/80/90% of Lean transformations fail”, then go on to explain reasons why this is so? Maybe it’s confirmation bias. When someone tells us something we basically believe already, it makes us feel good – like we were “right”. As humans, we like to be right. Mark Jaban has done some fascinating research on this subject – we encourage you to check some of it out here.

 

It could also be that someone is simply trying to sell something. Unfortunately, there are people in the world who like to manipulate facts to serve their own purposes, whether they be career advancement, trying to become popular or relevant, solidifying a previously-taken position, or selling books. Whatever they are – ulterior motives never represent delivering the best value for the consumer. As the old saying goes; buyer beware.

For whatever reasons people have, statistics and percentages will likely continue to get tossed around despite efforts to combat and question them. It’s unfortunate, really. In Lean terms, we talk a lot about waste and value; removing as much of the former as possible in support of increasing the latter’s delivery to the customer. Instead, we’re faced with having to spend time and energy sifting through these baseless claims, searching for data and truth where there is none. If we can’t look towards the Lean community to agree on something so basic and fundamental, how do we expect anyone know who to listen to when it comes to other, more pressing and more urgent issues?

 

Photo credit: Matt Brown

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