The Solution to Lean Fade: Sustain Lean with Just One Behavior Button

behavior buttons

Why do so many Lean programs and Kaizen process improvements fade away despite their obvious results? 

The simple answer is that they run out of fuel. The fuel for behavior. 

What is that fuel?  Let’s find out. Most machines have operating buttons.  Metaphorically speaking, so does behavior. Why do people do what they do?

There are 3 buttons for behavior:

START = Anything that tells you to do something.

You see a sign saying ‘masks required’ and put on your mask, you hear instructions from a team leader or you follow the task sequence on a standard work chart – these are examples. 

How long you continue doing the behavior depends on the next button, the ‘fuel flow’ button called CONTINUE.

CONTINUE = Something encourages you while you do the behavior (or shortly thereafter). 

Someone points at you and says “Mask on. Good!” 

The team leader sees you following her instructions and says “Good follow-up.”  

You follow the standard work chart and your work flows smoothly and meets Takt time.  You think “Wow! This works!”  These are all things that encourage you.  As long as this psychological ‘fuel’ flows during these behaviors, odds are you will continue these behaviors. They won’t fade.

STOP = Something discourages you while you do the behavior (or shortly thereafter). 

Your teammate says “You really look stupid wearing that mask.” 

The team leader never notices or comments about how well you followed instructions.  

The standard work chart adds steps that make it more difficult to get your work done. If these negative consequences persist, you will stop doing these behaviors. They fade away.

So, why do Lean process improvements sputter and run out of fuel and fade away?

Two possibilities:

  1. Nobody is pushing the CONTINUE button.  Nobody is noticing and making positive comments of encouragement on how well the team is doing the behaviors of the new standard work process (invented during Kaizen events).  And, nobody has commented on how well the new standard work process is working. The team’s reaction?  “We are making the extra effort to follow Lean procedure, but nobody seems to notice or care.  If nobody else cares, why should we?”  Result?  The slow fade of Lean.
  2. People or the tasks themselves are metaphorically pushing the STOP button.  If you are criticized for doing new Lean behaviors, or the task becomes too difficult, odds are you will stop doing the behavior.  Result? The quick stop of Lean.

So, how can you use the CONTINUE button to SUSTAIN your team’s gains – and avoid Lean fade?

Press the CONTINUE button daily & weekly for the new Lean process behaviors.  


Walk the Gemba and look for people following the steps of the new process.

When you see someone doing the new behavior, be EPT (opposite of inept). 

E = eye contact
P = point to what they are doing
T = thumbs up to signal approval

Or the “4 second fuel flow” comment – “Following the new process. Good.”  (Time yourself. It really does take less than 4 seconds to say this!)

The goal of Lean Kaizen is often stated as finding the “one best way” to do the work.
The “one best way” to avoid Lean fade and sustain Lean is one best button: CONTINUE with positive recognition and encouragement for the new process behaviors.

When?  Daily and weekly.

Positive recognition and encouragement are now part of your Leader Standard Work.  Just as you periodically add fuel to your lawn mower to keep it running, add the psychological fuel of positive recognition and encouragement to your Lean team on a daily and weekly basis to avoid Lean fade. 

Who?  You as the team leader.

Begin to grow future team leaders by asking team members to also make comments of positive recognition and encouragement to their teammates when they follow the new Lean process.

To sustain Lean, push the Green: CONTINUE!

About the Authors:

Michael McCarthy has been an author, trainer and consultant for over 35 years. He worked on Performance Improvement with Ford, Emerson Electric, and Philadelphia Electric Co. He worked on Process Improvement with 3M, New York DMV, Preston Trucking and Georgia Power Company. He worked on Lean with Sonopress and Eaton Electric. He was editor of Performance Management Magazine.

He authored: Sustain Your Gains – The People Side of Lean/Six Sigma.

Co-authored with Janis Allen: You Made My Day – Creating Co-Worker Recognition & Relationships, How to Engage, Involve, and Motivate Employees, and
Ready? Set? Engage!

[email protected]

Janis Allen has been a corporate trainer, consultant and author for over 35 years. Her clients include: BMW, 3M and Department of the Army. Internal consultant with Milliken & Company. Vice President of Operations at the consulting company Aubrey Daniels International.

Author of seven books: Performance Teams ~ Completing the Feedback Loop; I Saw What You Did & I Know Who You Are; Team Up!; From Boo-Hiss to Bravo – Behavior-Based Scorecards People Will Use and Like
Co-authored with Michael McCarthy:
You Made My Day – Creating Co-Worker Recognition & Relationships; How to Engage, Involve, and Motivate Employees; and Ready? Set? Engage!

[email protected]