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Updated: Jun 13, 2023

by Calvin L. Williams | IMPRUVER.

It’s no secret that Lean and Continuous Improvement initiatives have an unacceptably high failure rate. A quick Google search on why Lean fails will produce 65 million results, all indicating a single root cause – a lack of motivation. Yet, the solution to this obvious issue is always to do more Lean. More knowledge, more kaizen events, more tools, more analysis, more frameworks, more philosophy, and more benchmarking Toyota. The assumption is always that people would embrace Lean and change themselves if they understood how good it would be for the business. They would join the cause if they could see how much easier their day-to-day work lives would be. People would love to learn new and proven techniques for producing better business results, eliminating waste, and enhancing company culture, right? Who wouldn’t want a beautifully organized, highly efficient, and profitable workplace with happier customers? These are all rational and academic arguments, but don’t address the more primitive side of what really drives human behavior. What makes Lean (or TPS) practices more accepted at Toyota than many other companies around the world? Why do some people embrace Lean wholeheartedly while too many others are repulsed by it?

Most people want to see their company succeed and prosper. They would also agree that things need to change to make it happen. However, through my own experience as a former Lean Leader at Nestle, Colgate, Mars, and Clorox, as well as deep research in the field, I’ve discovered that very few accept that they need to change to help the company succeed. They struggle to see themselves as part of the problem. They understand that if they did things differently, a better result could be produced, but they are often reluctant to change their behavior, instead opting to call out what others can and should do differently. The problem with Lean and Continuous Improvement adoption is not a technical one. It’s more primitive than that – it’s one of human motivations. The simple and painful root of the Lean adoption problem is: for too many people in the company, it’s not worth learning, and for those who have learned, it’s not worth doing.

Over the past five years, we at Impruver have conducted one experiment after another on what makes a person more likely to achieve a goal. As a technology company that is innovating in the space of Continuous Improvement and Strategy Execution, which are fancy ways to say systematic goal achievement, we are fortunate to have a massive database with years of data and thousands of users, which allows us to run test after test to discover what makes a person more likely to achieve a goal based on actual behavioral data. Impruver incorporates the levers of human motivation to drive the simple meta behavior of “everyone improve something important every day”. We believe that if organizations can adopt this simple behavior pattern at scale, they can accomplish anything. Simply set the goal, or direction for improvement, and let the machine work its magic. This rich and living data source provides us with profound insights on what motivates people to achieve. We have used Impruver to develop this science by introducing new features in a controlled fashion and observing the results of user behavior. In the process, the goal achievement rate has gone from less than 10% to over 80% for active users. This results in a rate of improvement and strategy execution that is unmatched across industries. We see companies producing double-digit increases in cashflow while improving company culture simultaneously.

Here’s an infographic that shares what we have discovered:

The most significant, but probably not so surprising result, was that coaching has the greatest impact on how likely a person is to achieve a goal. In other words, a person is 800% more likely to achieve a goal with a good coach than without one. Perhaps this is because a good coach will incorporate many of the other motivators identified in the graphic. For example, if a person has one goal at a time, they are 243% more likely to achieve it than if they had two at once. Each additional goal at the same time exponentially decreases the likelihood of achievement. This is a major discovery as companies often try to ascribe three to five annual goals at a time per person as part of their strategic planning process. Unfortunately, this dilution of focus contributes greatly to the 90% failure rate of the traditional strategic planning and management process, largely due to goals not being achieved. In other words, companies can increase their rate of strategic execution by 243% or more by simply ascribing one goal at a time per person, aligned to a common team Challenge.

We’ve tested each of the variables included in the graphic in isolation over the past five years. The latest experiment was to learn the impact of tangible rewards on goal achievement. What we’ve discovered is that a person is 44% more likely to meet the goal if there is a tangible and meaningful reward involved. This is a bit controversial because conventional wisdom would suggest that the best workers are intrinsically motivated. However, when it comes to strategic goals, the CEO has enormous carrots in the form of equity payouts, bonuses, salary increases, golden parachutes, and many other rich and tangible rewards. Everyone else for that matter – no carrots – just sticks. Furthermore, companies no longer have the luxury of churning through hundreds of workers to find the ideal few who are intrinsically motivated as the labor market is as competitive as ever. Companies must learn to motivate a broader spectrum of people effectively. We’ve tested this concept with our user base by introducing a feature where people could earn cash by making improvements within their domain of responsibility. This cash would accumulate over time, and they could trade it in for tangible rewards offered by their manager. This could include anything from a cup of coffee, paid time off, team events, or even an all expense paid trip to Hawaii. Anything the boss wants to offer, they can, allowing each individual person to choose what they feel is worth the effort. This gives the leader a lever they can pull to accelerate transformation on demand. The results so far have been phenomenal! Many users have cited that their direct reports went from “why me?” to “help me improve so that I can increase my earnings”. It addresses the WIIFM in a very powerful way. Lean leaders now support people in achieving their own goals instead of pushing solutions where there is no perceived problem.

Bruno Mars said that people fall in love in mysterious ways. This journey has taught me that people are motivated in mysterious ways. In Japanese culture, communities and traditions are very strong, making it easier to adopt a more altruistic approach to managing a business; one where people are willing to improve themselves for the greater good of the community. Company loyalty, honor, and self-sacrifice are also baked into the value system of far eastern cultures. In American business culture, people have different motivations. It’s a more individualistic and competitive landscape where instant gratification drives day-to-day behavior. We should not expect that people will embrace Lean because it’s best for the company. People aren’t as loyal to their companies as they once were, and as evident with the campaign of mass layoff we see in the media, companies are not so loyal to their people either. Lean leaders should not expect adoption for the sake of making work easier or making customers happy. Although these are important things, people are more concerned about being socially devalued by their peers. This often means not pushing for changes that would upset their coworkers. It’s not as much about tools or philosophies or frameworks. Lean leaders must think more wholistically about individual motivation and leverage every aspect of human psychology to help people change themselves. Give them a damn good reason to do it, and they’ll find a way. Likewise, where there is no will, there is no way.


Calvin L Williams is the CEO of Impruver, Inc ( and author of the Amazon bestselling newly released book titled “FIT – The Simple Science of Achieving Strategic Goals”. He is a former Operations and Continuous Improvement Leader with several Fortune 100 companies, Management Consultant with AT Kearney, coach, and public speaker. He holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Industrial Management Systems Engineering (IE) and an MBA. He is also a certified Lean Six Sigma Blackbelt. Calvin lives with his wife, three children, and dog in Atlanta, GA. Learn more about Calvin at

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