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EPIC FAILS: Science, Opinion, or Drivel?
November, 2015

I just had an interesting discussion with a self-styled expert, over a statement that is quite well-known in the lean community. The statement is repeated often, and concerns the success rate of lean implementations.

I first heard the 'statistic' when I was attending the University of Kentucky Lean Training Program. I still have my notes, to this day. It was my first introduction to lean, and I was very excited to be there. I read everything I could, and wrote down everything they said.

Looking back to my notes, it was right there. Plain as day, written in pencil. Circled, underlined. I even had a question mark next to it, as if it made no sense to me at the time. No other notes were written near it, nothing to explain the statement.

"95% of all lean efforts fail."

Bill Kluck
The Northwest Lean Networks

In my younger days, I touted this 'statistic', just like all the rest. Then I started to actually think about it, and question its validity. Now, I think it is a stupid statement, and I question (hard) everyone who says it. Think about it:
  • If this were true, why would ANY leader want to even try it? The odds are so far against, you could never justify it.
  • If this were true, MOST consultants would have failed in their work, with most of their clients. But you can't find ANY that will admit even the smallest failure.

So what does a scientist do? Gather data. I asked this person to provide some data. He told me this came from Jim Womack, and Clive Ransom. However, this isn't data, and seems more like opinion. I again asked for data.

He came back with the statement that 'all real lean practitioners know this', and that it is impossible to get this data, since companies which fail aren't going to answer questions about it, admit it, or even know it. Hmmmm, they don't even know it? If a company fails in the woods, does it make a sound?

Again, I asked for data. He pointed me to a great blog post by Bryan Lund (, which really proved my point (that this assertion is just said, with no real basis in fact or data).

Of course, I again asked for data. This time, insisting I just 'didn't get it', he sent me a 51 page Clive Ransom deck. It only took me 30 seconds to flip to page 28, to find that even Clive 'guesses' at this. (I don't know Clive, so I'm not bringing him into this to berate him - he actually proved my point!).

"So what does a scientist do?
Gather data."

I've been encouraging people for years to question their assumptions, even question themselves. Even experts need to show data. Deming said, "Without data, you're just another person with an opinion.". An expert should be the FIRST to lead with data.

With all respect to my unnamed friend, we need to stamp this ridiculous saying from our lexicon. Just because Womack or Ransom (or pick your favorite expert) said it doesn't make it true. (I have no evidence that either of these said this, I'm just making a point).

My friend also made a few other interesting statements. First, that lean is just Just-In-Time (JIT). Second, that there is no lean basis for lean, its just a collection of common sense actions. Shocking that a lean consultant would say such things. Lean may have come from a JIT path, but JIT is just a part of what lean has become today. There is much more to it now. And if you can prove cause-and-effect (like system waste takes resources from value-added activities), you definitely have a science.

It's all in what you measure, and how you measure it!


no_photo.gifBill Kluck is the Founder and Director of Operations for The Northwest Lean Networks, a professional society which connects the community of lean professionals worldwide.

Bill has over 20 years of experience implementing lean in a wide variety of industries, both public and private. He has trained thousands of leaders & associates in various lean strategies and techniques, and has facilitated billions of dollars in impact. Bill's main focus is building transformational change and evolving business culture.

Bill earned his Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Washington, an MBA from Seattle University, and holds several continuous improvement certifications (including a Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and a Masterís Certification in Lean Methods). He currently works as Assistance Vice President for Genpact, LLC.

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