The headlines are alarming: “Lean Production: Inside the Real War on Public Education” and “Lean Production Comes to Public Education (Parents and Teachers Must Fight This Process).” Has Lean really come to public education? No, that has not actually happened, and it will never happen until people – education leaders, union leaders, teachers, and staff – comprehend and put into practice the “Respect for People” principle.

It ceases to be Lean the moment it is used for bad.
Lean must do no harm.

union_noOne of my great disappointments is how, for nearly 100 years, labor union leaders have preferred to use progressive (Lean) management as a wedge issue to create contention between labor and management, when instead they could work to understand Lean management and hold management accountable to its correct practice. That alone would be worth the price of union membership dues. And union members would be proud to know they are led by knowledgeable, honest, and capable leaders who truly have their members’ interests at heart (stable employment, wage increases, and better benefits and working conditions – what every working person wants, whether top leader or bottom worker).

Labor unions, of which I am a member (AAUP since 2005), look stupid when their leaders fail to get all the facts and learn about things that are of importance to the union, its members, the organization, and its stakeholders. The characterization of Lean in public education, while correctly criticizing management’s bungled practice of Lean, fails to inform members of the distinction between Lean done right (mutual trust, mutual benefit, mutual prosperity) and Lean done wrong (zero-sum, win-lose). Articles portraying Lean as bad are written and re-published again and again to strengthen and expand its utility as a wedge issue and keep members united against the threat of Lean. Union leaders’ total failure to understand that Lean must do no harm is an enormous disservice to union members, as well as the managers they negotiate with.

I have been characterized as “the greatest advocate for workers and the ‘Respect for People’ principle” as a result of my 20-year effort raise awareness of the “Respect for People” principle and how to apply it in the strategic and day-to-day practice of leadership and management. Consistent with my work, I periodically contact union leaders to offer my help to improve their understanding of Lean and the critical importance of the “Respect for People” principle, which both labor and management persistently fail to understand. I recently contacted a union leader. Here is what I said to him in an e-mail (sent from my university e-mail account):

Hello Mr. Smith – I am a member of the AAUP union and a long-time practitioner of Lean management, first when I worked in industry and later as a university professor. I understand you are a critic of Lean, and I understand why. Most leaders of organizations misunderstand and misapply Lean principles and practices. As a result, they do harm to people. It is not Lean management when harm is done. They are doing something else, which they unfortunately also call “Lean.” I have experienced this first-hand (what I call “fake Lean”), but I have also experienced Lean done right (what I call REAL Lean).

I have always felt that union leadership should take the time to understand Lean management – REAL Lean, not fake Lean – because they could serve an important role to hold managers accountable to practicing REAL Lean, which would result in better outcomes for people, especially union membership.

I would like to begin a dialog with you on this topic, if you would be so kind.

Here is my bio and resume

And here’s a few blog posts and an article (last item) that I think you will find interesting:

Finally, I am beholden to no one. I am a passionate, independent advocate of REAL Lean, and harsh critic, as you are, of fake Lean. I hope to speak with you soon. Thank you.


Bob Emiliani, Ph.D.

Here is the reply I received from Mr. Smith 43 minutes after I sent the e-mail:


That reply, as I interpret it, is a quick brush-off. It illustrates to me a willful desire to remain ignorant, to manipulate members, to win elections, and to do harm to the image and reputation of labor unions and their members. There is no challenge in contention, and unions’ influence is severely diminished by ignorance.

Like the labor movement, the roots of Lean are in the progressive era – a time when activists sought to elevate workers, improve pay and working conditions, and improve relationships with management, in part by replacing zero-sum (win-lose) conventional management practice with non-zero-sum (win-win) progressive (Lean) management. Though they share a common heritage, generations of union leaders have incorrectly attributed Lean done wrong to Lean itself, when instead it was the managers in industry who misunderstood and Lean and who practiced it incorrectly. Unions can help correct that, but only if they understand the true meaning and intent of Lean management.

Lean management represents an area of common interest to both labor and management, and an opportunity to align themselves for their own benefits, as well as the benefit of all stakeholders. Will top labor leaders ever recognize that?

(Disclosure: Prior to being an AAUP member, I was a business unit manager for 4 years at a company with IAM-represented labor.)

5 Responses to Labor Unions and Lean

  1. Frank says:


    The dilemma that the US (and eventually the entire world) is facing is that there is a surplus of labor due to steady increases in productivity and the emergence of a global economy where currency valuations promote the migration of manufacturing and service work to specific regions and the import of labor resources at unfairly lower compensation rates. The “Market” has not created enough new opportunity to task the surplus labor and it does not seem it will in the foreseeable future.

    Frequently lean is being used as a tool to reduce the need for labor resources and save organizations money. So what happens to the people that are made redundant?

    Hopefully, one day, it will be part of our culture to provide opportunities for advancement or new positions for labor that is made redundant in a way where people are not unemployed for months and years. Somehow I think this will be a long way off.

    I suspect that before this occurs one of the following will happen during the next century:
    1. Currency valuations stabilize and all labor will be on an even playing field.
    2. Regulations will be put in place that punish organizations for hiring offshore labor during high local unemployment.
    3. Humans will start competing with robots more and losing, the problem will deepen.

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      I share your concern about surplus labor, and agree that we need a change in business and national culture that makes productive use of people who have been made redundant by whatever means. And I agree that robots and workplace automation will indeed create new stresses on workers. Fortunately, improvements can be made to assure better outcomes for labor, but the political and business will to do so must be there as well.

  2. Mark Graban says:

    Maybe I’m an optimist, but maybe we only have a surplus of labor because we don’t have a surplus of good business ideas, entrepreneurship, and leadership? Our government and economy in the U.S. do a pretty good job of stifling innovation and entrepreneurship. The existing businesses in an industry use their lobbying dollars and skills to stomp on upstarts. Things like that need fixed and I bet that would create more demand for labor.

  3. I concur that automation, offshoring, government and economy are challenges, but I’m also in favour of Mark’s optimism.

    Maybe there are also some “blaming issues” on the side of companies. It is easy to lay off “surplus labour” and point to the environment of a company as the reason. I’m sure this happens more in companies which only “optimize” (not a Lean term…) a current business model. Innovative companies should not fall prey to that special kind of waste of intellect. Instead, they will use the creativity that can be released by elimination of waste.

    More value to the customer by better services and goods should be the answer that overrules cost cutting.

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