top of page

Top 5 Reasons Lean Projects Fail

This blog post is reprinted here with the permission of technology consultant Andrew Ranson and applies equally well to church teams and projects. For additional insights on implementing technology in your organization, visit

Man in front of chalkboard

Technology mastery is an x-factor in organizational success today. Organizations that understand this are using “humalogical” profit amplification techniques to raise revenue while keeping costs low. Humalogy is applying technology and humans in the optimal balance at every point; profit amplification comes from using technology to raise revenue and improve effectiveness while keeping costs low. The philosophies and tools of Organizational Lean are more than half the story to achieve profit amplification. You may be thinking, “Isn’t lean really a manufacturing approach?” That’s certainly where lean got started, but it applies much more broadly than that today.

What’s in a name?

Process improvement efforts have taken many names over the years. Toyota originated the Toyota Production System (TPS), which became “lean” and took the manufacturing sector by storm. Then Motorola, GE, and a large percentage of the Fortune 500 rolled out Six Sigma. The branding of green & black Six Sigma belts remains a piece of marketing genius. BPR, BPM, TQM, TQC, TOC, and Agile have all been part of the lingo at some stage and specific company-branded approaches proliferate as well. At the end of the day, we’re talking about an intentional and systematic approach to improvement; one that relies on best practices to deliver continuous efficiency and effectiveness improvements from a customer-centric point of view; all in an enterprise-wide system philosophy. If you want to learn more about the battle of the various labels, check out the insights in Michel Baudin’s comparison article. In the meantime, let’s agree that process improvement is something we all should be doing, and allow me to share what I’ve learned about how business leaders can avoid some common pitfalls.

Top 5 Lean Projects Pitfalls & How To Avoid Them

As an executive leader, you may be called upon to serve a team in the “project champion” or “sponsor” role. In that capacity, you may be wondering just how deep you should get involved. While it is important to set your “altimeter” correctly (maintain the appropriate altitude), there are several critical areas you need to pay attention to. The Lean Six Sigma faculty at Villanova University point to five of the most common pitfalls that can cause lean projects to fail. I’m not sure how these were determined to be the most common, but they’re not a bad place to start. I will address these pitfalls one-by-one, assess why they occur and help you as the champion learn what to look for and to avoid them. It’s important that you understand your role in helping the project succeed.

5. Failure to obtain stakeholder buy-in.

We’re talking about an individual project here, so start by asking yourself who the stakeholders are. Believe it or not, many teams skip over this step. Make sure that your project team has thought this through. They should not only think about who is involved in the process today, but also who touches or will be impacted by any changes to the process. In some cases, the team may need your help getting an audience with the right people. Also as a leader, your skill in “selling” the project to the stakeholders, or at least your engagement and guidance as the team crafts its approach to getting buy-in, will be helpful. Remember, buy-in isn’t a one time message. There may be multiple touch points throughout the life of the project that will motivate key stakeholders to support the project in meaningful ways.

4. Poor or little champion involvement.

This pitfall has your name all over it. The team needs your guidance and your perspective. There are at least three ways teams can get off track if their project champion (typically an executive level sponsor) doesn’t engage enough. First, you provide a line of sight that most of them simply will not have. Among other things, you understand the politics that may play out elsewhere in the organization. This is related to pitfall number five above, but can often be more subtle than simply “obtaining buy-in”. Second, you will likely have a perspective of the value proposition that is broader than the team members have. As a result, you are in a better position to ask probing questions to ensure that the team is approaching things in a way that will improve the ultimate customer value. Third, the project scope is really your domain, so you have to be close enough to what’s going on to be able to assess whether the team is expanding the scope or staying on track.

3. Poor or no root causation.

Simply put, this is jumping to conclusions. One of the advantages of a Six Sigma methodology is that it provides a roadmap that will help the team maintain process rigor as they execute their improvement project. Because the champion is likely the one closest to other executives who may be demanding fast results from the project team, it is easy to slip into the trap of pushing your team to move too quickly into making the improvements. You can hold them accountable to hit deadlines while still ensuring they’ve had a chance to really analyze what’s going on and establish a clear sense of what the drivers or root causes are for a given problem (or outcome that needs to be improved). Executives especially tend to be results driven, so it’s easy to become impatient and demand that the team produce outcomes quickly. Here’s where altitude is important. If you are so involved that you start micro-managing the improvement process, there’s a danger the team will skip steps and miss critical points where waste could be eliminated or value could be created. If your work-planning phase is well executed, and operational definitions both of the problem and expected outcomes are agreed to by the team on the front end, then it’s your job to help hold them accountable to the plan; however, the plan should include time for root cause analysis and this should not be skipped.

2. Scope creep.

Scope defines what the team will, and perhaps more importantly, what you will not address. In an improvement project, it is not uncommon to uncover areas that absolutely need attention, and as project champion, it’s your job to make the call as to whether these fall inside or outside the scope. A good rule of thumb is that simpler, more narrowly defined projects are more likely to succeed, but this is where it becomes more art than science. If the scope is defined so narrowly that the project’s perceived value is minimal, even success won’t create the momentum you want; on the other hand, if you try to “boil the ocean” the project will almost certainly fail to complete in a timely fashion. I hope you’re seeing how these pieces tie together, and how critical the role of the project champion is.

1. Poor team dynamics.

The number one reason improvement projects fail is poor team dynamics. This speaks not only to team selection, which the champion often plays a role in, but also to how the team engagement is orchestrated. As champion, you can set the tone by putting check-in meetings with the entire team on the calendar, as well as more frequent updates from the Project Lead (who is usually distinct from the champion and is more involved in driving the execution of the project itself). During these check-ins and updates, be sure to pay attention to the team dynamics. Remember, effective teams do go through several phases before they really click (see Egolf's Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing). Again, the art of leadership will play an important role as you navigate these phases– allowing storming to take place, but ensuring it doesn’t degrade into dysfunction. Also remember that if team members need to be switched out (which happens from time to time) the team dynamic will need to “Re-form” and will also go through another Storming phase before it can function properly.

When your organization embraces an Organizational Lean approach, and you are called on to champion a project team, reflect on these five pitfalls as you assess how you can best facilitate the team’s success. Set your altimeter properly. Prepare to engage regularly without micro-managing. Help the team remove obstacles, be they political, personal, or operational. When you do all these things well, you set your project team up for success. The positive momentum this can generate as lean becomes a way of life across the organization is like the flywheel Jim Collins talks about in Good to Great, which explains “the victory of steadfast discipline over the quick fix”. You don’t necessarily sense it right away, but if you keep pushing, consistently, diligently, methodically, eventually the organization will see its profits become amplified as costs go down and revenues go up. Your role as project champion is critical to getting this flywheel moving.


- Andrew Ranson


bottom of page