We owe a debt of gratitude to the MIT researchers who introduced the world to Lean, led in part by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones. Their work changed lives in important ways, ranging from developing a stronger, more insightful intellect, useful in all facets of life, to embarking on challenging new careers and improving processes in a wide range of industries.

Yet, it seems the time is right to reflect and re-calibrate. If you follow the Lean movement closely, you will recognize what I say below. If you don’t follow it closely, these words will be foreign to you. And they will likely upset you, possibly deeply. I apologize.

The thinking among the current, first generation, Lean movement leaders and associated organizations has gone stale. It is weighed down by the limited MIT interpretation of Toyota’s management system, and it has been too busy promoting and not doing enough thinking. The focus has long been on the few Lean success stories while ignoring the many Lean failures. They fail to acknowledge the depth and breadth of Fake Lean and failed Lean transformations (abnormal conditions), with no apparent interest in their root causes or countermeasures. The damage done to Lean management and to the Lean movement is consequential, yet they do not seem up to the task of doing anything about it.

Most first generation Lean movement leaders have scarcely evolved in their understanding and presentation of Lean management from the start, beginning in the mid-1980s. And in the few instances where they have evolved, it is to a point where they should have begun; e.g. Lean management, leadership, leadership behaviors, respect for people, kaizen, etc. Criticism, fundamental as it is to improvement, is dismissed as ill-informed, misunderstandings, personal agendas, sour grapes, or other nonsense.

This proves to me that basic tenets – customer first, seeing reality, being fact-based, go see, asking why – are dissipating in favor of other interests. Defensive routines are displacing bedrock critical thinking. Intellectual rigor is slipping. Listening and learning take on lesser importance when one no longer evolves.

First generation organizations promoting Lean live in an insular, closed-minded, self-reinforcing, self-congratulatory bubble. They are a transparently self-serving mutual admiration club, offering loud praise for their intimates and silent scorn to outsiders. They protect their brand and their vested interests to the detriment of both Lean management and the Lean movement. They are neither inclusive in spirit nor diverse in thinking or population. And they are more akin to aristocracy than the humble servants that they should be. This, after nearly 30 years.

Will this path help assure Lean’s survival long-term? It seems unlikely. Profound and long-running problems cannot be reckoned with under such stagnant conditions. Persons and organizations promoting Lean cannot be more important than Lean management itself or the Lean movement.

Lean advocates are nothing more than temporary standard-bearers in an important and worthwhile movement. For each, their time will come and then fade away. First generation, followed by the second generation, and so on. Yet without reflection and re-calibration, and a re-imagining by the second generation, the Lean movement may not flourish in the future. Changing times require the second generation to be less dependent on individuals and organizations, and they should be more discerning and think for themselves.

The second generation’s time is near. Their charge is to re-acquaint themselves with classic Toyota ways of thinking – especially Taiichi Ohno’s thinking (1, 2, 3). They should learn from the first generation’s mistakes, define a new target, carefully analyze Lean transformation failures, further decode successes, marshal resources, find new allies, build broader coalitions, pursue greater social and intellectual diversity, move forward, and evolve.

6 Responses to Evolving Out of Need

  1. Bob Emiliani says:

    Michel Baudin made the following important comment about this blog post on Google+ on 11 March:

    “We owe a debt of gratitude to researchers like Richard Schonberger for Japanese Manufacturing Techniques (1982), Robert C. Hall for Zero Inventories (1983), Kiyo Suzaki for The New Manufacturing Challenge (1987), and to Norman Bodek for organizing the translation of many Japanese classics on the subject during that same period at Productivity Press.

    When Womack and Jones’s The Machine That Changed The World came out in 1989, I had already been consulting in the field for several years, and thought it was a good overview of TPS as a spectator sport. It could raise awareness, but you couldn’t learn how to do anything from it.

    The book’s most enduring legacy, for better or worse, is the “Lean” label, but the people inspired by it were the second generation to learn from TPS, not the first.”

    To which I replied:

    “Of course, Michel, you are right that others were hot on the trail around the same time, and we owe them gratitude as well. I did not intend to ignore or diminish their important contributions. However, my blog post specifically related to those who gave us “Lean”, and what has ensued from that. As I see it, they are all first generation.”

    On 12 March, Michel wrote a blog post “Giving Credit to the Precursors of the Lean Movement.” It is worth reading so that you become familiar with important work that either pre-dates or was done contemporaneously with the MIT study. Also, I recommend that you read these books, as they are an interesting look into the past.

  2. Norman Bodek says:

    Dear Bob

    I am in Japan completing a study mission where we saw the application of Lean at Lexus and other suppliers to Toyota. It was a fabulous trip and TPS is moving swiftly along. It is not complicated. You focus on the elimination of waste relentlessly, in teams, and develop people to their fullest capability. I will be sharing more with you later.

  3. Anthony DeCaria says:

    I studied Industrial Engineering at the University of Michigan in the mid to late 90’s where Dr. Jeff Liker, Mike Rother, and other first-generation lean thinkers had set up camp. So I consider myself second-generation.

    I’ve researched the evolution of continuous improvement from the 1800’s on, thoroughly digested Ohno and Suzaki’s works and applied the collective wisdom of the improvement-minded of the past 150 years. I’ve experienced and learned from the successes, failures, and pitfalls of each continuous improvement initiative I’ve been a part of in my 16-year career (not limited to lean).

    I have been working for the past few years on my theories to further evolve lean. Unfortunately you’re touching on something very real, as many of the discussions I’ve had with the first generation about these theories have been cut short when talking about the failures of lean, usually with defensive statements like, “If it failed then it isn’t really lean,” or the classic, “It’s a management issue.” Although I sometimes get discouraged, generally this just fuels the fire within me to keep digging deeper and strengthen my next-gen views.

  4. RalfLippold says:

    1989 [1996]- the time when the book “Lean Thinking” made its first appearance – was a time of massive change in the world: the Eastern Bloc crumbled, and Germany was about to reunite.

    Now the companies were coming out of a world recession with strong sellers markets as everything was about to be ripped from the shelves (I remember days in Berlin in summer 1990 when shelves in supermarkets were literally empty (!)).

    How could lean thinking, TPS or Kaizen stick when the whole world was on a growth trajectory, and easy, fast and big success seemed possible without having a close look on the processes?

    When I, quite serendipitously, learned about “The Machine that Changed the World” (the 1st book by Womack/Jones) I happened to study in Bamberg, just a mere 30 km from the former Eastern border to Thuringia. The friend who borrowed me a copy of the book did not know what he impacted in my future life by bringing me to touch with the lean philosophy.

    Looking back now almost two and a half decades, and living most of this time in Eastern Germany (Leipzig and Dresden for the most part) I have to say lean thinking (the essential before doing any improvement) has still not really arrived in Germany. It seems that consultants, and in-house lean consultants at companies are bringing the topic to conferences, and management circles but only at the expense of large, visible projects.

    Have we done something wrong? Did we miss a turn along the path to progress?

    When joining the team to build up BMW’s back then newest plant in Leipzig (in early 2003) I was thrilled to experience first hand what it would mean to bring lean into practice. On the edge (responsible for the vehicle distribution) I was able to play the two assets (1) respect for people and (2) continuous improvement. And yet there was no given incentive to really improve processes beyond a certain level. The rules just did go counterclockwise, and all others not being infused with the “lean virus” did play to the rules.

    A common saying in the industry (in Germany) is, “A big problem needs a big solution (which often is resources demanding, man-power, financials, and time)”.

    Lean Thinking and TPS in this environment have a heavy stand, and the front runners (Womack/Jones) can’t really be blamed for what happened in the complex social system in which managers, workers, consultants, shareholders, the public and politicians play a crucial rule to solve pressing problems (which often are felt but not fact).

    Rather than preaching lean thinking as an engineering discipline, only applicable in production environments, and the Gemba only being the shopfloor I am envisioning a future where Lean Thinking (respectively Lean Management) is part of a multi-disciplinary approach including system dynamics* and systems thinking to understand the impacts and dynamics within and outside the closed company-wide social system in more depth leading to wiser decisions.

    * the field system dynamics is marking its 60 anniversary, and Prof. Jay W. Forrester aged 98 (!) commenting on the broadness of the field https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3vol3XPFpw

Leave a Reply