Jim Womack’s hansei on where lean has failed

Lean leading figure Jim Womack posted a sincere and critical reflection (hansei) on where Lean has failed and why not to give up. I was impressed when reading it and it reinforced my respect and admiration for the author.

You can read the August 29th, 2017 post on planet lean (http://planet-lean.com/jim-womack-on-where-lean-has-failed-and-why-not-to-give-up)

>Lisez-moi en français

Jim Womack is someone to take seriously when he expresses himself about Lean, so when he posts an article titled “where lean has failed” it is probably not just a clickbait nor a questionable joke. Indeed, the critical reflection Jim shares is truly about failure from his point of view. And his point of view with regards to Lean is one that really matters.

Where lean has failed

The failure is, in Mr Womack’s opinion, manyfold:

  • It is the failure to get big organizations to transform themselves in a Lean way and have, at least, “another Toyota” emerging.
  • It is the failure to reverse offshoring, despite the rational proof that companies would be better off keeping operations close instead of trading labor costs for logistics and quality costs.
  • It is the failure to see disaffection among the workers and the growing acceptance of things as they are, without attempt to resist or change them in the Lean Community itself.

This hurts.

I am impressed by the courage to analyze and acknowledge that situation of someone who dedicated his life to promote Lean and share the knowledge. After all the enthusiasm, hype, hope and successes, this must be bitter.

Many people in Mr Womack’s position would deny the situation and keep going on, their ego not allowing them to acknowledge failure. Jim Womack not only has the courage to do it, but refuses to give up and want to avoid the “muda of denial about the situation”.

What I see from my narrower and European (mainly in France) perspective is consistent with Mr Womack’s analysis: the number of lean managers and continuous improvement champions soared in the last years but no company advertises or gets attention because of drastic improvement of its performances.

Furthermore, when called for assistance in companies, I am most of the time appalled by the (very) limited competences of the people in charge of Lean or operational excellence, a fact also reported by Karen Martin in a post on the Lean Edge https://www.theleanedge.org/256088-karen-martin-technical-proficiency-and-leadership-acumen-can-you-nail-the-problem-statement-first-time-right/

So yes, “doing Lean” is reduced to running small kaizen workshops here and there without consistency nor link to a strategic intent. It is merely about patching broken processes,solving local problems at best, or opportunistic muda hunting.

This keeps the additional layer of “Lean” bureaucracy busy and living easy with a lot of complacency about local qualitative results. Once a 5S workshop went through the first 3Ss, they’re done and feel “Lean” now. This is how Lean looks like too often.

No wonder the questions about “what’s next” or “is lean dead?” arise.

Considering Lean transformations, like many armchair generals giving strategic advice in hindsight, I would say that Jim Womack and people around him did well  addressing the diagonal of the 2×2 change matrix: promoting the “pot of gold”, metaphor for reward and benefits of the change, as well as warning about the “alligator”, symbol of the danger of the status quo. I remember well Jim recommending to have a burning platform or even create a crisis to get the change done.

This was the rationale promoting the change, the Lean transformation.

What could have been underestimated was the other, emotional diagonal of the matrix. Many of the decision makers are in love with their “mermaid”. By definition, a mermaid cannot leave the sea and therefore the decision makers stay put, close to the object of love and happy with the current situation. A happiness, they believe, they can enjoy ONLY in their current situation.

Maybe the decision makers are risk averse and see nothing else than the frightening perspective of the “crutches”, the metaphor for risks and big efforts. Indeed, many decision makers may jeopardize their actual position if they dare going for a disruptive transformation with unforeseeable results. Leading a Lean transformation requires leadership, courage, confidence and the necessary freedom to act.

Why not to give up

Despite this bleak picture, Jim Womack is not ready to give up nor let “the muda of defeatism” get in his way. If no other Toyota is likely to emerge, other success stories can be reported. Successes may be experienced in and with start-ups for example.

Acknowledging the limits of the actual Lean promotion and Lean methods training ways, mainly through workshops and workbooks, Jim calls for “thinking hard about more effective ways to pass lean knowledge along to the next generation”.

The last paragraph of Jim Womack’s post sounds like a firm resolution “to rethink the (Lean community) tactics, stick to its purpose, and better understand the challenges preventing it from staying on course”.

I encourage everyone to read the original post as well as to have a look on the comments.

Personal conclusion

It is a sad read, but I can only agree. I empathize with Jim Womack and again, I am impressed by his courage and humility.

Even if Lean loses its shine, I still measure what it brought – and still brings – to me. I think that true Lean-understanding people, once “infected”, will not get away from Lean Thinking. I will continue to promote and use everything Lean at personal and professional level, wherever and whenever it’s meaningful, which should be pretty often. Fashionable or not.

My personal belief is that Lean (Thinking) will keep lingering in operations, but the emphasis will probably shift upstreams to Product and Process Development. I also think that the irresistible wave of digitalization and all the news techs around smart factories will reshuffle the cards on how to plan, organize, drive and strive. All new opportunities to reinvent business and the philosophy, methods and tools that must come with.

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What is Hoshin Kanri?

Christian HOHMANN

Christian HOHMANN, the author

Hoshin Kanri or Hoshin planning, strategic planning or policy deployment is a method designed to focus and align all contributions of the organization’s staff on required breakthroughs in order to achieve the top strategic objectives.

Lack of focus

It is very common in all kind of organizations that people work a lot, spend energy and consume resources on projects and performance improvement without the organization noticing significant progress.

Some may say things are done in inefficient way, let’s hunt waste. But that haste is waste too if not given a prior bit of thinking.

Improvement opportunities are infinite in any organization. Think about a factory, a hospital or an office building. What comes limited are resources: money, people, equipment, material, floor space… and time.

If too many projects are launched, too many improvements strived for or too many goals targeted, chances are that despite great efforts and spending, the dilution of limited resources will not earn noticeable / satisfactory progress.

Some of the planned projects or initiatives may simply be left aside because it is too much to handle, and chance are that priorities are not shared, bring a lot of frustration: top management does not get what it expected, bottom worked hard on topics which are not valued by the top.

The top management is often guilty too, failing to communicate strategic goals and/or sharing written priorities, keep teams focused on a limited number of projects or setting local target that will make divisions compete internally.

Focus and align

To prevent resource dilution, it is necessary to define what are the few things that are really required to achieve the long-term goal and is not yet available or not under control. This things are referred to as breakthroughs, which means we’re not after trivialities but important, critical things: new technology, specific know-how, methods, etc.

All efforts, contributions and resources will be focused on acquiring, building, installing the few breakthroughs. Furthermore, all efforts, contributions and resources must be aligned so that local initiatives do not negatively interfere with each other, but help the whole organization to achieve the goal.

The focus is now on what is referred as ‘true North’, a metaphor used to indicate where all units should head for, regardless the routes they individually have to take.

Hoshin Kanri starts with the definition of the few critical breakthroughs the organization must achieve so that its goal or purpose can be achieved. This is considered on long or mid-term, typically three to five years ahead.

The next step of planning is to breakdown the long or mid-term objectives into shorter term objectives, usually for the coming year or next twelve months.

While strategic objective setting is done at the top of the organization, the underlying objectives and tasks are handed top-down. Each head of division has to propose his plan to support and achieve short-term objectives. Proposals are submitted to the top and a consensus searching process known as ‘catchball’ will make top and next level discuss the proposal until agreement is found.

The process repeats itself level after level, cascading down the objectives and cascading up the proposals.

Once everything is settled, the cascade is built so that achievement of lowest objectives automatically achieve higher objectives.


Strategic planning and deployment can lead to fairly big collections of objectives, hence actions. In order not to recreate the loss of focus it is supposed to avoid, planning overview is done with the help of a X-Matrix.

Such a matrix usually reads clockwise starting with long-term objectives, the related short-term objectives, the actions to achieve short-term objectives and KPIs to monitor progress. At each intersection of the X, a symbol shows the contribution level. For example if an action contributes strongly to achieve an objective, the square at their intersection will show a dark disc. If the contribution is weak, the square will display a circle and if the action does not contribute to the objective, their connecting square will be left empty.



This matrix allows a synthetic overview as well as a way to check if planned actions will effectively help achieving objectives.

An additional table on one side of the matrix shows who takes over actions (what resources, who’s in charge…).

A3 reports

The X-Matrix is a summary and a high level planning tool. For the cascade to lower levels and a more operational use, A3 reports are great tools. The cascading is done with a set of A3 reports, the higher level A3 report being father or mother of the subordinate A3 reports, the sons or daughters.

To learn more about A3 reports, read my related posts.

Hoshin Kanri reviews

Hoshin kanri or policy deployment is reviewed periodically. The A3 reports are used for operational daily, weekly and monthly reviews while more formal strategic level reviews are done every quarter or twice a year and a final review closes the short-term plan the end of the period and fuels the next one.