Lean failures and Jim Womack’s 3P

Chris HOHMANN

Chris HOHMANN – Author

Lean initiatives – I don’t dare write transformations – are credited of high failure rate. Paradoxically these failures do not seem to reduce Lean’s attractivity, probably because of reported and expected short-term gains and savings “pay” the initial effort and probably because these quick wins are the initial (sole?) target of the initiators.

For those aiming a higher target, a real ambition to install continuous and sustainable improvement, the failure is not only a failure but ironically also a waste.

Yet how many of those initiatives were bound to fail, because of ignoring Jim Womack’s 3P?


Reminder: Jim Womack’s 3P

First P: Purpose.

Without a goal, a vision to share and a distant and steady reference (often called the True North in reference to the polar star), how and toward what can all the contributors align their efforts and initiatives? Without a goal, the Lean journey has all chances to end up in a wandering.

Without a reference for alignment, local initiatives will serve only local targets, successes will be only local successes, a patchwork of local and disconnected improvements without yielding significant global gain.

I call this opportunistic approach, hoping that the sum of local improvements improves the whole, dot painting or pointillism. Pointillism is the impressionists’ painters’ technique which creates a coherent and harmonious picture by the juxtaposition color dots.

Without linkage with a strategic intent, the local initiatives may focus onto secondary activities or worth, focus on processes and activities that are scheduled to cease. What a time and resources waste this would be. Well, too often is!

Without a common goal onto which focusing the efforts, no success is granted as the opportunities to make bad (local) choices are too numerous.

Second P: Process

Lean transformation is a result of a structured and systematic approach, a process defined, chosen and/or built by the organization. Ideally this process is made out of lessons learnt, experimentation and learning through trial-and-error.

For each issue, hypotheses about causes are set and challenged, as are the possible solutions. The process will retain only:

  • Real and proven causes,
  • Robust solutions yielding expected results.

These effective and robust solutions become capitalized and shared standards.

That’s the reason why “recipes” or “copy-paste” don’t work or have limited success. What are the probabilities that someone else’s solution to their problems solve issues in another organization?

Sorry, when it is about Lean there is no such thing like silver bullet or instant pudding…

Third P: People

The best process or best technologies are worth nothing if not manned by competent and motivated people. In current competition, command-and-control management is obsolete. Decisions have to be taken fast, as close as possible to the customers or where issues arise. This supposes competent, autonomous and empowered personnel, able to take swift and wise decisions within a defined and shared framework.

Henceforth, this supposes communication and sharing of Purpose as well as existing Process.

How many Ps at the start?

As a consultant visiting many companies, how many Lean initiatives built upon 3Ps have I seen? None.

Organization’s Purpose is seldom communicated or even known in the lower levels. So in most cases, initiatives can align only onto self-defined goals and targets.

Process guidance for continuous improvement is scarce too, but the appealing Lean six sigma toolbox provides many tools and methods, used more or less wisely to solve local issues.

People are not empowered but serve as auxiliaries to champions during focused and time limited kaizen events.

From my experience, many Lean failures could be foreseen just because the initiators ignored the 3P principle.


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