Toyota’s vaunted production system has been around for over 50 years. During that time, they have improved on their quality and productivity — in the process capturing a significant portion of the world auto market. This success has led other companies to try and implement lean manufacturing — in most cases with limited success.

Why is this? The short answer is that these companies try to emulate the hardware. They do not take time learn the principles and thinking behind the system.

While Kaizen activities are an important tool for improving productivity, it is the principles and thinking behind them that matter. This article looks at 10 common mistakes companies make when implementing lean manufacturing.

Using Lean for Cost Cutting

Productivity improvement through lean manufacturing leads to more product been made at a lower cost and higher quality. The promise of increased profitability as the only reason to implement lean has resulted in disappointment for many companies.

While doing lean the right way does increase profit, the biggest gains are not always visible. Lean is a way of thinking that instills problem solving capabilities in the workforce. The real transformation is in the empowerment of workers to drive organizational learning and improvement.

Companies that do lean for cost cutting soon find that their employees become demoralized. They will even sabotage the efforts — making it even harder to gain from the programs. For example –if a company decides to cut its workforce because of productivity improvements, the remaining staff will be unwilling to cooperate. The message you are sending to your workforce is that lean is about improving yourself out of a job.

Creating a Lean Office

The appointment of internal lean experts — complete with an office — does more harm than good. These experts tend to give solutions to the shop floor instead facilitating learning. By telling the people who do the work what to do, they do not get the feedback needed for change.

Additionally, lean experts are looked at as privileged workers who are enjoying themselves at the expense of others. They are also seen as layabouts earning pay for doing nothing.

Instead of creating a dedicated lean office, companies should perform lean using everybody. It should be a way of doing things by everyone — from the highest offices to the shop floor. By involving the whole organization, the culture changes across the board and benefits are sustainable.

Thoughtless Automation

Mechanization and automation can significantly improve productivity and reduce costs — when applied correctly. But when haphazardly implemented, automation can lead to skyrocketing of costs.

Toyota does have many robots — but these are only installed where they are totally indispensable and useful. The principle that is applied is — only automate jobs that you can do manually.

A recent example of automation gone bad is the admission by Tesla CEO Elon Musk that the company had over-automated its production line. In the 1980’s, GM had made the same mistake with automation and ended up burning through billions of dollars.

Kaizen Workshop Trap

Kaizen workshops are important activities that provide the time and resources for team to focus on a particular problem. They are a good way of teaching and getting buy-in for lean manufacturing programs across the organization.

Workshops, when done in the right way, shorten the time needed for carrying out improvement activities. However, many companies fall into the trap of holding kaizen workshops just for the sake of it.

Improvement activities in such companies stop immediately after the workshop. Worse still, all the gains made during the week quickly dissipate. This has the effect of people believing that lean manufacturing does not work.

Tools Instead of Principles

Some companies fall in love with one lean manufacturing tool like 5S and go all crazy with it. They will implement 5S as a housekeeping program without trying to find out the root cause of a disorderly and dirty workplace. By hiding small problems through constant cleaning and arranging, the small problems become bigger and difficult to solve.

All the nice tools in lean manufacturing evolved from a thorough problem solving regime. They are a manifestation of the invisible lean thinking. Over-fascination with tools leads to a fake kind of lean — superficial.

The main reason why a company implements lean manufacturing is so that recurring problems can be solved conclusively. Use of lean tools should result in a shift to a problem-solving and learning mindset.  

Lack of Top Management Involvement

Top management sets the direction of a company through strategy. It is imperative that it provides support and encouragement to lean manufacturing programs. But what happens in many companies is the exact opposite — top management has a hands-off attitude to this programs.

This lack of involvement sends the message to lower cadres that the program is not very important. The program will fail because the top management will not be in a good position to understand the reasons behind requests for funding.

Lean manufacturing projects need everyone in the organization to be on board — especially the top levels.   

Suboptimal Implementation

Suboptimization means improvement of only one part of a system without thinking of the effect on the whole. When a company does lean improvement on only one department or process, the benefits to the whole will not be felt.

By concentrating their efforts on only a small subsystem, scarce resources are expended without any tangible results to the whole system. Lean is a system wide process and the interrelationship between processes must be taken into account when making changes.

Value stream mapping is a good tool for getting a systemic view of how value is flowing within an organization. Any improvement activities identified using value stream mapping are more likely to have an impact on the entire system.

Fear of Mistakes

Lean is about experimenting — testing hypothesis. After defining a problem, we come up with solutions that we think will work in a certain way. This may not be the case and the effect of the solutions may turn out to be totally different from what we expected.

When things do not work out as we expected, we may feel discouraged. This is a natural reaction to making mistakes. In the context of lean manufacturing, mistakes are an essential feedback mechanism that help in refocusing our improvement efforts.

Companies that see mistakes as a bad thing cannot do lean. Fear of mistakes can be a stumbling block towards making progress to the next desired step.  

Spending Money on poorly tested solutions

Lean is a commonsense approach to solving organizational problems. The best solutions are often the ones that require the least resources. Pumping inordinate amount of resources when trying to solve organizational problems is counterproductive — the problem remains unresolved.

Applying such concepts as PDCA will iteratively move you towards a better solution. Throwing money at problems will not. Many people trying to implement lean will increase the labour and equipment in the hope of getting better results. This leads to lower productivity at a higher cost.

Thinking that their is an end in Kaizen

Lastly, when implementing lean, always remember that it is a journey — not an event. In reality, it is a continual journey that does not end.

Thinking that you’ve reached the end of your lean journey will only lead to stagnation and even backsliding.


The Toyota Production System is more than just a set of tools to be copied thoughtlessly. It a philosophy to be applied everyday and everywhere within an enterprise. TPS is management paradigm with continuous improvement as its foundation.

For Toyota, every employee must be involved in making his work better. The role of leaders is to bring out the abilities of their subordinates to the fullest. Leaders go beyond their job descriptions unleash the limitless potential of their employees.

Any company trying to emulate Toyota when implementing lean should go beyond tools and try the difficult job of learning the principles. Only when leaders realize that Kaizen is a state of mind and way of thinking will there be a notable difference in lean implementation.

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