How to Avoid a Lean Workshop Disaster: 5 Critical Success Factors - Carlos Venegas

How to Avoid a Lean Workshop Disaster: 5 Critical Success Factors

This Lean workshop was a DISASTER.

It was a tragically painful Lean office workshop I observed as a Lean trainee over 25 years ago. It was the second of four Lean workshops that I was required to observe for my Lean certification. As a training experience, seeing this disaster was by far my most valuable. What I learned from it forms the core of the 5 Critical Success Factors.

The lessons from The Disaster did not come without anguish. I’ll never forget glancing at the sponsor of the workshop, an experienced and respected director, during a particularly chaotic report-out at the conclusion of a five-day workshop. As the team reported their results, lurching ahead in fits and starts, she buried her face in her hands, slowly shaking her head from side to side. I did not ask her what she was thinking about, but I imagined the worst.

I was visiting her group as a trainee, so I did not feel the sting of humiliation my Lean mentor must have. However, I knew that I wanted to avoid that humiliation in my workshops at all costs. Besides, winning and success is much more fun for me, for the workshop participants, and for the sponsor. That’s what the 5 critical success factors are all about.

I’ve paid particular attention to the critical success factors in every workshop I’ve done since then, and every one of those workshops has been successful. While I’d love to take personal credit for that, I can’t.  The critical success factors—and the robust Lean processes— are the key. For example, I led an event where the manager was distracted and disengaged. He would not keep his commitments with me or the team, missed deadlines, and was generally apathetic towards the event. Even with that obstacle, we were able to achieve a 15% improvement on our target processes. (Typically, I expect improvements much higher than that, but it was an improvement nonetheless. The fact is that human barriers are as real as technical process barriers, and it takes a lot of finesse to deal with them.)

I learned about the importance of these critical success factors the hard way, but you don’t have to. They don’t take any special skill or talent, just the desire to be successful. Here they are.

# 1: Ensure the sponsor knows their role and is actively involved

The role of sponsor may be the most important role in the workshop. If I don’t see clear sponsorship in a project, I will stop the project. That’s how important sponsorship is to me, and should be to you. Unfortunately, this critical role is often misunderstood, making the change process more difficult than it needs to be.

  • A sponsor is the person who has budget and/or management authority over the process being improved. This authority makes it possible for the workshop team to change the process.
  • The sponsor is responsible for sanctioning the Lean workshop. This includes validating that the charter is in alignment with the organization’s goals and strategies, monitoring and supporting team progress, and tracking the process changes after the event.


Without effective sponsorship, the organizational support required for a successful Lean workshop may not be forthcoming. Managers and employees not directly involved in the workshop do not give it high enough priority, channeling their energies in other directions. The sponsor should communicate his/her support of the team and its objectives to the team and the wider organization. Without that support, the team flounders.

Without  effective sponsorship, the team’s energy may flag and lose focus. The sponsor’s commitment energizes the team because the team responds to the sponsor’s priorities. If the workshop is a high priority for the sponsor, the team knows it. The sponsor should attend the workshop kick-off and report-out meetings.

The sponsor needs to be crystal clear about what he or she wants to happen. Without this clarity, teams will either spend an inordinate amount of time parsing the sponsor’s few words (or lack of words) and/or end up going in a direction unintended by the sponsor. I can’t emphasize this enough. I have run into situations where sponsors were too busy or too unfocused to provide guidance to the team. This always makes it harder for the team to know where to go. A simple charter can facilitate this clarity.

  • An effective charter should be no more than one page long, and contain the theme of the event, relevant background details, specific goals or targets, the boundary of the event, and a simple timeline.[1] Time spent on the charter is time, money, and effort saved in the later preparation and workshop phases.


Teams usually work best when there is a single sponsor. Sometimes a process cuts across organization lines, and two sponsors are named. That creates a very tricky situation. Unless the sponsors work very well together, shared sponsorship confuses the team and dilutes the outcome. Too often, the sponsors have differing agendas—stated or unstated—that create conflict. I have seen this conflict grind a team to a halt. And the conflict doesn’t have to be intentional or cantankerous. The conflict can even stem from an honest misunderstanding.

If you have dual sponsorship, I recommend that you go up the hierarchy until you find an executive who alone has budget authority over the process in question. It could be a mid-level manager, or it could be a CEO. The title matters less than the scope of authority in relation to the process being changed.


If you are the sponsor

  • Be sure you have budget and/or management authority over the processes being changed
  • Have a clear, one-page charter that includes the theme of the workshop, relevant background information, goals or targets, the process boundaries of the workshop, and a simple timeline
  • Validate that the workshop charter is aligned with organizational goals and strategies
  • Monitor and support the team’s progress
  • Attend the kick-off and report-out meetings


# 2: Involve employees and stakeholders from the beginning

If there is any single element that makes Lean work, it is the involvement of people in the improvement activities. While there have been a number of attempts to discover what it is that makes Lean work, the involvement of people in improving the way they do their own work is probably the most significant.

Since the 1940’s there have been hundreds of studies looking at the effect of allowing people to improve the processes that they use, versus having the processes changed for them. These studies have shown that involvement alone, without any other technology or technique (including Lean!), can result in dramatic performance improvements that go beyond the single point improvement. For example, when a work group was given the responsibility to plan and effect their own change, not only did they exceed aggressive targets set for them by engineering, they continued improving their performance after the initial improvement. That was unheard of in the environment where this phenomena was recorded.[2], [3]

A common mistake some leaders make is to involve employees late in the improvement project.  Make sure that those closest to the process in question are involved in the workshop process very early in the preparation phase. This includes planning and data collection. This nurtures their sense of ownership, and it gives them a head start in understanding the process issues.

I have worked with consultants who are hesitant to include managers and executives in the Lean workshop team. I personally think this is a mistake if the manager or executive will be directly impacted by the process in question. Will the process change the way the manager does their work? If yes, then include them.

The concern over including some managers seems to be that they may be disruptive by virtue of rank, dominating the conversation, making autocratic decisions when the team should be making the decision, or intimidating the team members into silence. I have not seen this happen often, but when it does, I view this situation as an opportunity for learning and team building. I have found that being clear about the executive’s role is all I need to ensure they are a happy, effective part of the team. I will do this with the manager before the workshop, and I will restate it at the workshop with all team members present.

Remember, one of the cool things about Lean is that the people who are impacted by the changes are actually making the changes. This goes for managers, too, not just employees.


If you are the sponsor

  • Make sure that employees are involved in the workshop if their work will be affected or changed by the workshop
  • Make sure that stakeholders—those who will be affected by the change—are involved
  • Make sure that managers are included in the workshop when the change may affect the way they do their work


# 3: Ensure that the scope of the workshop is manageable

A common mistake is to attempt to do too much. This does not refer to the aggressiveness of a target, only the amount of work to be done. Increasing the size of the scope doesn’t always translate into more work accomplished. A team can only do so much with the time they have. Increasing the scope can dilute the efforts of the team. Dilution shows up as a lot of partially completed tasks or partially attained goals.

The scope of an event refers to what is included: the size of the process defined within the boundaries and the number of targets. Dreaming big is fine, but act incrementally. For example, it is not uncommon to set a target that represents an improvement of 50% over the starting condition. That aggressive target is a good one, and can often be achieved—even exceeded—if the team has the time and support to achieve it. Don’t unwittingly sabotage an event by trying to do too much.

Another aspect of scope is the sphere of influence of the sponsor. Make sure the sponsor has management and/or budget authority over the process being changed.


If you are the sponsor

  • Limit the scope to that which falls under your budget or management authority.
  • Make sure the team has the time and resources to accomplish the task and achieve the goals.


# 4: Prepare, prepare, prepare

Lack of preparation increases the risk of workshop failure. Preparation—the comprehensive, thorough analysis of the process and the context in which it operates—paves the way for the workshop team’s success. The workshop preparation includes a detailed analysis of the current condition, a plan to guide the team to resolve the issues, and just-in-time training to ensure they have the knowledge and skills for workshop success.

For an office or service workshop, the analysis includes using the standard Lean tools to understand how the process works: tracking and measuring flows, collecting relevant metrics, time-and-motion observations, etc. In addition to the traditional Lean tools, thorough preparation for an office or service workshop will include the collection of all physical and electronic artifacts of the process. This means every document, form, and post-it note used in the process is copied and recorded as part of the process. Also, every electronic interface is captured and printed out. Without this level of detail in data collection, the understanding of the entire process being improved will be incomplete.

The data and knowledge gained from the analysis provides the intelligence to design relevant, effective workshops and just-in-time training plans. Without this information, generic workshops and training plans are the best for which one can hope.


If you are the sponsor

  • Demand comprehensive preparation for Lean workshops
  • Make sure the team has a workshop plan, with just-in-time training

# 5: Follow through after the workshop

The workshop is not successful unless the gains are sustained and subsequently improved. Sustaining and building on improvements is the purpose of Lean. Statistically speaking, the odds that you will be able to sustain and improve on the gains that you make in your workshop are against you.

The effectiveness of Lean is well documented in nearly every industry in many cultures around the world. The challenge lies in making lasting change. Without follow-through, you will not sustain your improvements. If you do not sustain your improvements, you will not get better. Here is a simple mathematical comparison I use to illustrate the concept:


  • 1+1=2 (this is progress)
  • 1 + 1 – 1 = 1 (this is not progress—it is expending effort and not getting anywhere)


Follow-through after the workshop is one of the most challenging—and interesting phases of the Lean workshop. It’s challenging because there are a whole host of restraining obstacles that work against sustaining the changes made in a workshop. The interesting part is figuring out creative ways to deal with the restraining factors.

One of those ways is to look at obstacles as a positive indicator. Obstacles indicate that you are actually doing something new, that you are making a real change. If you are not doing anything new or significant, then you will not experience obstacles. You will be in a “business as usual” mode.

Another way to approach obstacles is to see them as opportunities to learn and improve even more. Approached with an open, curious mind, obstacles tell you things about your process and your organization that you did not know. Consider managing obstacles as part of the process of getting to know your business better.

After the completion of the event, publicly track progress against the targets. Did the solutions work? What did not work? What is being done to correct errors, omissions, and unintended consequences?

Unless you are willing to follow through and sustain initial improvements, and even improve on the improvements, you are better off not doing the workshop.


If you are the sponsor

  • View obstacles as opportunities to become even better
  • Track progress of the improvements after they have been implemented
  • Find out what didn’t work and why
  • Find out what is being done to correct errors, omissions, and unintended consequences
  • Ask your people how you can help them sustain continuous improvement in your organization
  • Communicate results to workshop participants and stakeholders
[1] You can find more details on charters in Flow in the Office: Implementing and Sustaining Lean Improvements, available from and

[2] L. Coch., & J. R. P. French, (1948). Overcoming resistance to change. Human Relations, 1, 512–533.

[3] James K. Harter, Frank L. Schmidt, Theodore L. Hayes, (2002). Business-Unit-Level Relationship Between, Employee Satisfaction,  Employee Engagement, and Business Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology2, 208–279.

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