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Sustaining Lean Initiatives: Lessons Learned - Raphael L. Vitalo and Joseph P. Vitalo

Making Sure the Next Time Is Better...
Mining Learning From Performance
Using SRLDsm to Improve Sustaining
  • Judge Status
  • Uncover Reasons
  • Extract Learning
  • Set Direction
  • Strengthening and Refining Learning
    About the Authors
  • Raphael L. Vitalo
  • Joseph P. Vitalo
  • Feedback Please


    The improvements you develop through daily or special lean events must sustain if you are to make real progress in your striving for perfection. Without sustainment, you simply run in place. You also surrender the lion's share of value an improvement generates through its continued use over time. Yet, despite the importance of sustainment, most improvements wane in their application. How do you turn that fact around?


    Do Most Improvements Wane?

      While we have not uncovered direct research on the overall frequency that Lean-driven business improvements sustain, we do have indirect research from other related improvement efforts that suggest the failure rate for sustaining an improvement might be as high 70%. These include the results from business process redesign (70% failure rate reported by Malhorta, 1998) and the sustained use of new proficiencies in the workplace one year after training (estimated at only 30%; Saks, 2004). As imperfect as this information is, it is consistent with our observations of various improvement initiatives across a variety of companies over several decades of consulting.  

    Making Sure the Next Time Is Better...

    Recently, a company we encountered began a major Lean initiative in its Manufacturing area. We were visiting the company on a related issue during which we uncovered that the company had undertaken a Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) initiative some years prior as well as a broadly implemented 6S initiative. Curious, we asked how they were received. They had been received well by employees, we were told, and they produced important benefits at the time. We asked what was happening with them today. We learned that the follow through on preventive maintenance regimens and 6S was poor. The two obvious questions we raised were "why" and "how are you ensuring that your new initiative does not end up the same way?" These questions raised a concern. "If we were not able to sustain our last effort to continuously improve, why should we believe that this new effort will sustain?" This is a question every company can and should raise for itself, as decade after decade we seem to re-discover and re-apply a newly branded version of problem solving methods to get better at what we do. We have many tools and lots of energy for uncovering opportunities and making improvements (Quality Planning, Process Charting, Value Stream Analysis, Gemba Kaizen events, Quick Change, Quality Circles, team problem solving, suggestion systems, etc.), but we seem to have few if any tools and little excitement for ensuring that the improvements we develop sustain.

    The company asked our help and we suggested a simple solution—"Let's conduct a Mining Learning From Performance session with the people knowledgeable of what happened with TPM and 6S and use what we learn to ensure that the improvements you develop in this new initiative sustain." The company agreed. We share the results of this effort with you because, in retrospect, the findings seem to fit many companies we have encountered.


    Mining Learning From Performance

    Mining Learning From Performance is a simple four step process that develops ideas from the last time you performed a task and uses them to produce a better next effort. The four steps are—(1) Judge status, (2) Uncover reasons, (3) Extract learning, and (4) Set direction for improved performance (Exhibit 1). Our acronym for our process is SRLDsm.

    Exhibit 1. The SRLDsm Process
      Step 1   Step 2   Step 3   Step 4  
      Judge Status Uncover Reasons Extract Learning Set Direction  

    You can apply SRLDsm at the individual or team level to recycle experience into a better next performance. It is an engine of continuous personal development when applied at the individual level. It works as an engine of renewal for initiatives performed by teams and organizations.


    Using SRLDsm to Improve Sustaining

    We gathered together a team of knowledgeable people to complete the SRLDsm session. Each team member was trained in using the method. We established our focus and set some ground rules for extracting and applying what we would learn. SRLDsm begins with identifying the task for which improved performance is desired. Here, the task was to sustain the application of 6S and preventive maintenance (PM). As to ground rules, the team adopted some commonly used rules (e.g., one speaker at a time, leave nothing unsaid, use your Working With Others skills1 and added a few specifics to this assignment. First, we would each assume responsibility for checking the facts with others not in the room. This meant that we would split the session so that team members could have time to speak with employees in different work areas and at different job levels (managers, supervisors, and nonsupervisors). We all agreed that the problem was broadly based and needed all the perspectives we could gather to ensure that we understood the facts correctly. Second, we would push for quantitative information, not just opinion. This too was important as it ensures some level of validity to the information with which you work. It also allows you to decide among conflicting perspectives objectively.
        Exhibit 2. Status of the Sustaining Task  

    Sustain the application of 6S and preventive maintenance (PM)


    • 100% of scheduled PMs completed as scheduled
    • 100% of designated work areas have 6S implemented
    • 30% of scheduled PMs completed as scheduled
    • 30% of designated areas have 6S implemented
    • Performance of task is below expectations


    Judge Status

    Once you define the task, you document the target for results you had and what results you produced relative to realizing those targets. No one actually recorded a target for sustaining 6S and the performance of PMs, but everyone agreed that the implicit expectation was 100% compliance—meaning, 100% of the scheduled PMs performed as scheduled and 100% of the designated work areas maintained to 6S standards. Next, we recorded the results achieved. Compliance with 6S can be measured using simple observations, but we also wanted to know whether everyone saw the same thing. For example, if there was a real division among perceptions as to whether 6S was being done and, in fact, it was not being done—that would tell us that one reason it was not being sustained was that people did not understand 6S. As it turned out, perceptions about 6S were consistent. It was estimated that not more than 30% of the of the designated work areas were maintained to 6S standards. Direct observations supported this estimate.

    As to PMs, we encountered an unusual situation. The department had an accounting system that tracked and reported the completion of PMs. It consistently reported that PMs were completed 100% of the time. In contrast, the estimates of completion people on the floor reported averaged around 30%. In this instance, the formal accounting system turned out to be wrong. Our first-hand observations on the floor confirmed the 30% estimate. A closer look at the accounting system revealed that the system simply counted the number of PM authorization sheets returned with "Done" checked off. It did not audit the performance of PMs.

    Once you have the task, target, and results, you judge how well the task was accomplished. A task may be judged as performed to expectation, above expectation, or below expectation. Clearly, success in sustaining the application of 6S and the performance of PMs was below expectations (Exhibit 2).


    Uncover Reasons

    With the status of the task clarified, each team member contacted various other employees to share the perceived status and solicited their thinking about two questions. The first question was. "What are the reasons we did as well as we have done is sustaining improvements?" The second question was, "What kept us from doing even better?" We always pursue both tracks no matter what judgment we conclude as to status. The reason is simple. It is just as important to continue to do what worked as it is to replace what did not work. Do one without the other and you compromise your learning and your chances to improve your next performance.

    When the team members reassembled, they shared what they learned from others as well as what they understood based on their own experiences. We use a set of causal factors to prompt thinking and organize the reasons we uncover (Exhibit 3). These factors account for most of why any human activity results in success or failure. We developed them based on our own experience as well as the prior work of Gilbert (1978) and Carkhuff (1983). People are the most critical factor determining success—specifically, their capacity, desire, and readiness to perform what is required and their alignment across groups (performers, supervisors, managers, and executives). Next, the method used to implement whatever the action is, especially whether it is well designed, documented, and incorporates coordination, measurement of results, and feedback to all performers. The setting within which the method is performed is the third factor that contributes to or retards success. The key features of support are the adequacy of resources provided, the clarity and timeliness of expectations and feedback, the incentives established within the setting, and the performance by other organizations that must support doing the task.


    Exhibit 3. Factors That Enable and Hinder Success

      People (Performers, supervisors, managers, executives)
    • Strength and energy (relative to task requirements)
    • Desire or motivation
    • Knowledge, skills, and proficiency levels (relative to task requirements)
    • Alignment with respect to purpose and approach across groups
    • Status as documented
    • Status as completely explained
    • Effectiveness as a method
    • Inclusion of coordination, measurement of results, and feedback to all performers
    • Ease of execution
    • Other characteristic of method
    • Resources (information, space, equipment, tools, materials, funds)
    • Expectation/Feedback
      • Assignment (Do what?)
      • Method (How?)
      • Results Expected (Achieve what?)
      • Results Achieved
    • Incentives
      • Recognition/Rewards for correct performance
      • Consequences for nonperformance
    • Support from other interfacing organizations






    What We Found

    The team uncovered 24 reasons why sustaining 6S and performing PMs did as well as it did and why it ultimately failed. Here are the highlights.

    What Enabled Sustaining

    Initial success was driven by the energy and desire of performers to improve their work setting. Employees were enthusiastic about having an opportunity to influence their work and the initial commitment of employees was reinforced by experiencing a direct and immediate benefit from sustaining the improvements—specifically, they worked in a clean and organized area and experienced less frustration in doing their jobs. Employees were skilled in doing the processes they needed to sustain. They were trained in 6S and in implementing their preventive maintenance tasks.

    Initially, there was good alignment among all levels of employees. Upper management was involved and concerned. Supervisors worked alongside line personnel and helped solve problems and obtain resources. They also scheduled time for the improvement tasks to be performed.

    Two features about the methods used to implement 6S and preventive maintenance also were credited with helping early success. One was incorporating keeping notes about problems discovered and the fixes put into place for future reference and the other was providing ways to communicate across shifts so that problems uncovered and corrections made were passed along.

    With regard to setting support, the evidence suggested that the key enablers were the delegation of authority to the workers to fix problems when they were uncovered and to have a say in the way their work areas were organized.

    What Hindered Sustaining

    The key factor that unraveled sustaining was the breakdown in alignment among people. Management priorities, as expressed in their feedback to supervisors, appear to change. They did not address sustaining 6S and preventive maintenance—rather, they narrowed to getting product produced. With this shift, supervisor support for workers doing the sustaining tasks evaporated. Time was no longer allocated to the tasks, resources were not provided, and the opportunities for cross-shift communication fell away. This shift in emphasis by management, in effect, revised the incentive system operating in the workplace. The new incentives reinforced a return to the way things operated before the improvements were introduced. Also, the information system reporting the status of preventive maintenance became a "check-off the box" exercise and no longer a valid reflector of actual work. Hence, the feedback loop on performance was eroded. Both factors undermined the motivation of performers, as they read that sustaining was no longer a priority concern and as they encountered frustration with regard to getting the time and resources needed to continue the tasks.

    A more subtle factor was the failure of managers to detect and address what was happening. Management continued to want the 6S and preventive maintenance to be done and they detected that there was a drop off in sustaining each. Yet, they did not systematically investigate why the problem was happening nor explore how to correct it. Neither did they appear to recognize that their push on supervisors for production results affected how supervisors promoted and supported sustaining 6S and performing PMs. They assumed that supervisors would continue with the prior goals as they pursued the new priorities. They also expected the supervisors to "push back" if what they were asked to do was not feasible. Managers did not read their supervisors correctly. Rather than push back, supervisors and workers alike read the return to old priorities as confirmation that the sustaining tasks were no longer important and that further undermined their motivation to persevere in doing them.


    Extract Learning

    In the SRLDsm method, each reason for the results realized and not realized is converted into a learning. We define a learning as the advice you would give someone else doing the same task based on what happened. A useful statement of learning must have three elements: the advice, the reason why it is important to apply, and what benefit it will produce (Exhibit 4). The "advice" component tells what you should do to be successful. The "reason" component tells the advantage doing it will produce. The "benefit" component tells the improved outcome that will result. It provides a reference for checking whether the learning is valid. To make generating learning easier and to produce consistently complete items of learning, we use a standard format. Exhibit 4 includes an example of a complete statement of a learning.


    Exhibit 4. A Complete Statement of a Learning

      Advice Reason Benefit  
      Tells what you should do to be successful Tells the advantage implementing the advice will create Tells the improved outcome the advice will produce  
      [State advice] "Do... [State reason] because... [State benefit] and that...  
    Example of a Learning From Analyzing the Sustaining of 6S and PMs
      "Make sure that performers of a task experience an immediate benefit from doing the task because that will sustain their motivation and that motivation will drive continued task performance."  

    For brevity sake, we will summarize the key learning here. However, you may view a complete list of the learning the team developed with each learning recorded using the format depicted above [View]. None of the learning was truly surprising. One fact you will note is how interconnected the factors are across categories. For example, if people need information about expectations and the results achieved (Setting), you must include steps that assess and report the results of sustaining the improvement in your method.


    How to Ensure Improvements Sustain

    Make sure people are aligned across groups to the purpose of sustaining an improvement and motivated to accomplish it. Unaligned or unmotivated people will detract, not contribute, to sustainment. Be certain that everyone with a role to play has the personal resources needed to do it well. This means they must be equipped physically (energy, strength, coordination, etc.) and intellectually (knowledge, skills, and proficiencies) and possess any other personal characteristics needed for success (e.g., willingness to push-back should matters go awry).

    With regard to method, make sure that how to perform the improved process is fully detailed and documented. To be complete, the method must include guidance for preparing, doing, and assessing performance of the improved process and for reporting the results achieved. Also make certain what people report includes any problems they encounter in sustaining the improvement and ideas they have for overcoming them. This will continually uncover and clear obstacles to sustainment that relate to the improvement itself. Remember, as workplaces change, each improvement must adapt to that change if it is to sustain.

    Be certain that performers of the improved process derive a benefit from doing it. This benefit should be intrinsic to the process—e.g., the improved process might remove a waste-related frustration or improve the quality of their workplace. This will sustain their motivation and that motivation will drive continued task performance.

    Make sure that the new process people must sustain has no adverse impact on them. Recall in our 6S and PM example that supervisors pressed performers on producing product. You cannot expect people to implement an improvement, here 6S and PMs, when doing so will detract from their ability to satisfy a competing and higher priority task and make them subject to negative feedback. Another adverse impact can result from failure to build in coordination activities across functions and across shifts. Everyone affected by a new process must be continuously informed about it, otherwise they will be blind-sided at some point and that will undermine their support.

    As regard the setting, provide the resources needed to do the process people must sustain. This includes time, authority, materials, and information. Be certain people have the authority to make the decisions needed to implement the process. Ensure that the information available to all performers includes a description of the problems encountered and fixes introduced. Without this information reaching all involved parties, frustration will be introduced and sustainment will breakdown.

    Be certain that expectations about performance and targets for results are explicit and that feedback is valid and regularly provided. With regard to supervisors and managers, make sure that sustaining performance of improvements is an explicit expectation of their jobs and that they ensure that an accurate feedback system is in place. Also make sure that supervisor and managers are accountable for producing results on these expectations. To set expectations and ignore whether they are being realized is wasteful and destroys the credibility of every leader.

    Carefully align the incentives within your company to the purpose of sustaining improvements and be sure that recognition and rewards are provided equitably based on verified performance. This requires, in part, your performance feedback systems provide valid information and that your managers and supervisors have the discipline and courage to use objective data to as their guide in crediting performance and counseling nonperformance.


    Set Direction

    You set a direction in the SRLDsm method by identifying actions that immediately leverage the learning you developed into producing better success at your task. In our example, the team developed a check sheet [Download] that it applies to evaluate how it proposes to sustain each new improvement the team develops. This ensures that each effort fully incorporates the learning the team produced. We hitchhiked on the team's work by adding a simple six-step process to guide sustaining.

    1. Represent the process to sustain.
      Tip: Record what is to be done, when, by whom, where, how, and why. Test the method first using the sustainment checklist. A method should possess each listed feature listed on the checklist to maximize its likelihood of sustaining. Adjust the method to incorporate any missing feature. Next, test the method by asking performers to use it and provide feedback on its completeness, effectiveness, and ease of implementation. Use this feedback to fine tune the method and your guidance fro doing it.
    2. Support performance of the process.
      Tip: Prepare people to sustain the improved process. Make sure everyone is aligned with and motivated to support sustainment. Ensure that they have the personal resources to do their roles well. Make certain that your enabling systems (e.g., performance management, measurement, and feedback; recognition and rewards; incentives) also are aligned with accomplishing this task. Be certain that time, materials, authority, information, and other required assets are supplied as needed. Check your readiness by applying the sustainment checklist. Correct any deficiencies you uncover.
    3. Measure sustainment and results.
      Tip: Measure both the occurrence of the process as specified and its results. Make status on each visible to all people involved in sustaining this improvement.
    4. Recognize achievement.
      Tip: Credit real performance fairly. Build on the positive—meaning, recognize whatever is accomplished even if it is less than desired.
    5. Remedy shortfalls in sustainment.
      Tip: Detect failures in sustainment. Involve all parties in uncovering their causes and generating remedies. Act quickly to remove barriers to success.
    6. Continuously improve sustainment.
      Tip: Establish periodic renewal sessions to reflect on how well you are sustaining improvements, why, what you can learn, and how you can leverage that learning into greater success. Do this semi-annually at first. Later, a yearly session may be sufficient. Involve all the people responsible for sustainment. Use these session to extract new learning, set directions for improved achievement, recycle commitment, elevate overall approach, and sustain align and energy.


    Strengthening and Refining Learning

    If sustaining improvements is important to you, consider joining with us in building a sound knowledge base to guide success in this task. Test the principles we uncovered against your experiences with sustaining improvements. Share what you find using the feedback option below. Send us any references that quantitatively investigate sustaining improvements. We will integrate what you share and continually revise this article so that it provides ever sounder guidance.



    Byron, J.S. and Bierley, P.A. (2003) Working With Others. Hope, ME: Lowrey Press.
    Gilbert, T.F. (1978) Human competence. New York: Mc Graw Hill.
    Carkhuff, R.R. (1983) Sources of human productivity. Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press, Inc.
    Malhotra, Yogesh (1998) Business process redesign: an overview. IEEE Engineering Management Review, Vol. 26, no. 3, Fall.
    Saks, A.M. (2002) So what is a good transfer of training estimate? A reply to Fitzpatrick. TIP (quarterly news publication of the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology), Vol. 39/No. 3 January, 2002, available on-line at

    1 Working With Others skills are clarifying, confirming, constructive criticism, and hitchhiking. These basic skills enable people to efficiently understand the ideas and information another person is sharing and add their ideas to it in ways that build toward better solutions (Byron and Bierley, 2003).


    Published December 2005; Revised April 2006

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