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How to Overcome 24 Common Lean Excuses (+PDF)

Change is hard for some people. And since Lean requires a significant shift from typical thinking, it can generate some strong resistance. One of the most common forms of pushback when changing to a Lean mindset is the use of excuses. People are extremely creative at coming up with reasons that Lean will not work.

So, to help you out on your Lean journey, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most common excuses I have heard over my many years of Lean training and consulting.

This month’s featured article takes a look at these beliefs—and even more importantly—addresses what to do when you encounter them.

If you find this list helpful, I also have over a hundred other strategies on how to overcome Lean problem in my survival guide, Whaddaya Mean I Gotta Be Lean?

1. Our process is different

Why people believe this: Most people have a limited view of other processes, and don’t see the similarities. Many cultures also value independence, so people are biased towards seeing uniqueness in their processes.

The truth: There is a great deal of overlap in processes, and most are not as unique as people think they are. As a Lean consultant, I see new processes and methods with every project, but the majority of the tasks people do are things I’ve seen before.

How to overcome this: Have a couple of go-to people to talk to the group that is experiencing change. They should be people who have recently used Lean to improve their process. Teams believe each other far more than they believe their bosses.

2. The boss won’t allow it

Why people believe this: History. Most people have had a bad boss at one time or another.

The truth: Bosses are people and have good days and bad days. The bottom line, though, is that managers have to hit their targets. Having teams make improvements in their work spaces is a good way to do this.

How to overcome this: Communication. Ask the boss what is off limits. Don’t assume that the boss won’t do something without asking.

3. Our customers don’t want it that way

Why people believe this: There are always a vocal few customers that highlight a particular need. Employees also use their own personal sense of value to make assumptions about what a customer needs.

The truth: There is a risk that a vocal minority may not represent your entire customer base. Customer preferences also shift over time, so what they liked before may not be what they want now. Without a deliberate effort to listen to the voice of the customer, there’s a good chance that you are operating under false assumptions.

How to overcome this: Make sure the need matches the strategy. The best products are targeted at a specific group, and will not be valued by other customer segments. Get feedback from the right customers. You may need to include the marketing team to gather this information. You may also want to include a customer in the project, though you will be airing all of your dirty laundry.

4. Joe is out of town this week and we’ve got to get his buy-in

Why people believe this: Regardless of job title, there is often an employee that carries a lot of (often negative) influence. The team anticipates the challenge in dealing with Joe when he returns to a process that was changed in his absence.

The truth: Some personalities don’t mesh well with others. It can take a lot of active effort to minimize conflict.

How to overcome this: Identify your team’s “Joe”. He’s the one that people tread lightly around. The key is communication. Make sure Joe knows about the changes in advance. Make sure Joe has a chance to give input. But most of all, don’t engage Joe in battle. That’s what the boss, team leader, and champion are for.

5. It costs too much

Why people believe this: People assume that a new process will have a steep cost to it.

The truth: The long-term cost of a bad process is often higher than the short-term cost of fixing it.

How to overcome this: Don’t be free with the checkbooks, but have faith in the Lean philosophy. When you focus on improving flow and reducing waste, you almost always come out ahead.

I’m not saying to disregard cost in a project. I’m just saying that the cost of a bad process is often far higher than calculated, and the savings from a streamlined process and improved culture is often far greater than they appear.

6. We already spent $2.3 million on a new machine

Why people believe this: Big dollar numbers make people reluctant to change a process.

The truth: We are talking about sunk costs here. Money that is already spent has no bearing on the current decision. What matters is how much things cost from here on out.

How to overcome this: Look at the numbers without anything that has been previously spent. It is hard for people to do, especially if they are the ones who spent the money.

7. We tried that four years ago

Why people believe this: People see patterns over time, and assume that this time will be the same as last time.

The truth: Most people don’t stay in the same job very long nowadays. As a result, the few people who do see all the new people, especially managers, recycling ideas over and over.

How to overcome this: Ask for specifics about the failed attempt. Ask why it didn’t work. Show that you are trying to avoid the same problems.

8. We don’t have time to do that

Why people believe this: People see the added work on top of what they are already doing.

The truth: Without improvements, things seldom get better. Hiring nearly always lags growth and workload seldom falls.

How to overcome this: Leaders need to accommodate the improvement process. That means creating a daily management system and managing the work for people on project teams as if they were on vacation. It also means planning project time in as part of the workload.

9. Our demand is not predictable/too variable

Why people believe this: Most people have never seen a chart of demand patterns. The demand cycles they experience appear to be unpredictable demand. They also don’t have any means of reacting to changes.

The truth: Demand is more predictable than people think.

How to overcome this: Tracking hourly demand for an office often yields patterns that repeat on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Knowing that there are demand windows lets marketing teams work on leveling, and the frontline works focus on standardizing for each demand level.

10. We don’t have enough tools to add people

Why people believe this: People see a single set of tools in a work area, and assume that they can’t get help. They don’t think they’d get approval to buy “extra” tools that will sit idle most of the day.

The truth: Many tools cost far less than the price of line stops. True story: A production line made $1000 worth of products per minute. One station fell behind a few times a day, but didn’t have an extra 9/16 socket for someone to come help. A $3 item held up a few thousand dollars worth of production per day. The cost of the tool is often far less than the cost of not having it.

How to overcome this: Standardization. Make a specific plan for how people will help when demand rises or a problem happens. Get the tools for it. Tell the story above if there is resistance, or better yet, run your own numbers.

11. That machine is too expensive to sit idle

Why people believe this: People see a big, shiny machine, and think it has to be running all the time. If it isn’t producing, it isn’t making money.

The truth: Making the wrong parts or too many parts is far more wasteful than shutting a machine down for a few minutes.

How to overcome this: Long term, get smaller, right-sized machines. Short term, do setup reductions so the machine can run smaller batches and get closer to flow. They’ll be fewer parts shortages that way, and that means less pressure to keep the machine running all the time.

12. The process is too complex

Why people believe this: People see a hard process with a lot of variation that takes a long time, and they think it is complicated.

The truth: Most things look complicated as a whole. When deconstructed, each step is often very simple.

How to overcome this: Use the Process Recording Sheet. Break the process into several smaller steps and start linking them together. People are less intimidated when the process doesn’t seem so vast and mysterious.

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13. We need flexibility to be able to serve our customers

Why people believe this: People view standardization as a barrier to flexibility.

The truth: The word processing program I am typing with is a process. It knows what to do based on any combination of keystrokes and mouse clicks. There is no process in any company that is more flexible or more standardized than a computer program.

How to overcome this: Create a standard process that lets people have any choice they want, but be diligent about recording the decision points they use. 80 percent of the flexibility they need will be covered by 20% of the decisions.

14. The other group will never take on that work

Why people believe this: Many organizations are compartmentalized. When that happens, it is unlikely that one will do much to help another at a high cost to themselves.

The truth: Most departments are swamped, and very few would be willing to take on more work, even if it is good for the whole company.

How to overcome this: Value stream management. When one boss runs both processes, there is less resistance to moving work or people up and down the value stream.

15. We can’t modify the machine/tool/program

Why people believe this: People assume that the machine designer knew what they were doing, and are reluctant to modify machines.

The truth: Designers make a general product that you are applying to a specific task. Your task might not have been exactly what the designer wanted to do.

How to overcome this: First of all, only qualified people should modify machines! It can be very dangerous if done incorrectly. When doing a process improvement, think about how you’d design the machine from scratch, and see how that differs from what you are currently using. Most tooling and maintenance groups have some real wizards in them, when it comes to upgrading a machine.

16. I’ll get in trouble if it doesn’t work

Why people believe this: (1)Failure is often punished. (2)People don’t like to be punished.

The truth: Great Lean companies have a lot of failures because they try a lot of new things. Not all PDCA cycles work. In fact, the “C” step would not be necessary if there were no problems. Failure is especially high with people who are early in their Lean journey.

How to overcome this: Bosses have to change how they address failures. Treat them like learning opportunities. Have employees talk about what they learned, and what they are going to do to prevent the next failure.

17. I haven’t been here long enough to know what to do

Why people believe this: New employees are viewed as not knowing the process, and thus don’t know what to do to fix it.

The truth: New employees haven’t formed a bias about a process, and don’t feel defensive about it. They are also not resistant to changing it. Every new employee provides an opportunity to have an outsider’s perspective without the risks.

How to overcome this: Treat each new hire as an opportunity. Require them to use a Waste Recording Form when they are learning a new process.

18. Nobody’s complaining about the process

Why people believe this: People have heard “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” all their lives.

The truth: Sometimes a problem is far downstream and removed from its source. Other times, “broke” just means missing out on an opportunity.

How to overcome this: Use a healthy dose of metrics to show progress. Tracking performance takes a vague concept of “broke” and puts it into specific, measureable terms.

19. We are in the busy season/new project going on

Why people believe this: People don’t like the feeling of being buried with work, and often want to wait to get started on a new project.

The truth: There is no such thing as a slow period. Even in summertime or the winter holidays where many businesses have a lull, there are many vacations. People seldom have downtime.

How to overcome this: Get agreement on a specific start date in advance. Remind people of the date continuously, and get confirmation. It helps people plan better, and keeps them from having last minute reasons to delay the project.

20. Our suppliers won’t change that for us

Why people believe this: Most people don’t have direct contact with business suppliers, so they get their information from how they interact when they shop as a consumer.

The truth: Suppliers want your business, and if they don’t want to alter how they do things, someone else might.

How to overcome this: Always ask the purchasing group if you want something changed. Be prepared to talk dollars. Sometimes you will need to pay a little more for special packaging or smaller order sizes.

21. If we go faster, someone will get hurt

Why people believe this: People equate productivity with speed. They equate speed with injuries.

The truth: Lean improvements center on consistency of pace and eliminating waste. Lean operations often have less downtime than other operations, but there should also be far less racing.

How to overcome this: Show the person a Lean process. Let them watch someone operating in a Lean manner. Seeing a process in action speaks volumes.

22. We are already working on that with the (fill in the blank) project

Why people believe this: Companies often have a major initiative going on. Many of these projects had to be ‘sold’ to key leaders, so they have a lot of hype.

The truth: Many projects fall short of the hype, or features get trimmed. Plus, things may sound like they will solve your problem, but in reality, don’t address the issue.

How to overcome this: If you have an option to do a project with similar impact to the one that overlaps the initiative, consider switching. If nothing else is close, get commitment from the project team to include your specs. If they don’t do that, go forward with the project on your own.

23. It’s already on the calendar

Why people believe this: People see something magical about ink on paper. If it is on the calendar, it’s being handled.

The truth: Unless the project is yours, you probably won’t be getting exactly what you need. Projects also slide or fall off calendars completely.

How to overcome this: If you have a pressing need, do the project. If it overlaps the other project, more than likely, the other project owner will be pleased that you did the work for her.

24. It doesn’t matter if we fix it—we won’t be able to fix the upstream process

Why people believe this: People recognize that they are small cogs in a bigger machine. There is a tendency to want all inputs to their processes fixed before they work on their own process.

The truth: You will rarely see a process with perfect inputs.

How to overcome this: Never give control of your own future to an outsider. Find the things that you can fix and work on those. In most cases, the supply problem turns out not to be the biggest problem.

One final piece of advice…

Don’t try to talk people into believing that their excuse is not valid. They won’t change their minds, and you will just end up frustrated. Instead, convince them with the actions above. Remember: Seeing is believing.



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