In a previous blog post, I said that the flaws in Lean “are actually generated by an anti-symbiotic relationship between experienced leaders and progressive management.” We have a bad relationship, and bad relationships call for a relationship counselor.

For all our efforts, we have not made much progress in eliminating the bias against Lean among experienced leaders who are deeply committed to conventional management. After more than three decades together, it is clear that our warring couple, conventional management and progressive Lean management, have significant differences and need to meet with a relationship counselor.

First, we need a trained couples counselor. Who might that be? It would be someone who is impartial and whose only goal is for the couple to resolve their conflicts. The manner in which we have sought to counsel experienced leaders who are deeply committed to conventional management has been anything but impartial. Our enthusiasm belies impartiality.

In the first counseling session, each would offer a strong defense of their perspective. Each would claim that their approach to leadership and managing people and processes works. And, both would have ample evidence to support their position. Not much progress would be made initially. Perhaps after several counseling sessions, defensive positions would give way to honest communication, hereby revealing fundamental issues and sentiments that sustain each position. While communication and the relationship may improve, neither is likely to come to the other’s side. Conflict will continue to exist between conventional management and progressive management. Why?

Those of us who advocate for Lean think we know a truth that others do not. We have organized into groups that share this truth as well as a belief system (culture). Our numbers grow as we seek more people who are like us. Since the belief system is the foundation of the truth, those who do not share the beliefs cannot accept the truth even if it appeals to them. The more we try to show experienced managers that they hold the wrong truth (and faulty beliefs), the more they hold onto their truth (and beliefs). Our numbers are therefore structurally limited, likely relegating progressive management to permanent minority status.

kissFor decades, we have witnessed Lean’s kiss of death: confirmation bias. Experienced leaders – those who have spent decades practicing conventional management – are not seeking to have their truths and beliefs invalidated. Instead, they look for information that confirms their views and ignore information that contradicts it, even if the contradictory information is the absolute truth.

Their success, image, and sense of self-worth have been created by conventional management. They will strengthen their trust in the truth they know and solidify their beliefs even if they are incorrect because it continues to make them look good. It is threatening for leaders to admit they are wrong. Confirmation bias renders irrelevant any suggestion that there is a difference between Lean done right (REAL Lean) and Lean done wrong (Fake Lean). Decisions made by leaders are often based more on how one looks to self and especially to others than on the facts and logic.

Confirmation bias makes it mentally easier for followers to accept incorrect information, such as the bad effects that Lean management has on people, rather than challenge this incorrect information or even spend a few moments seeking correct information. These six criticism of Lean remain with us despite decades of work to reverse them.

  • De-humanize people
  • Speed people up and burn them out
  • De-skill people
  • Take away their knowledge
  • Take away their creativity
  • Cost people their job

Indeed, the supply of incorrect information and misinformation about Lean exceeds the supply of good information. Further, there is greater demand for incorrect information, as that helps assure nothing changes. If one were to get the opinion of experts in management or organizational effectiveness (university professors), the vast majority would say that Lean management is harmful to employees, unique to Japanese companies or to Toyota, or is just a passing fad.

The number of leaders who understand and practice Lean well is exactly equal to the number of leaders who are willing to admit they are wrong about mostly everything that they know. Rare is the experienced leader who looks for facts that challenge their views or render their theories false.

These experienced Lean leaders are our shining lights, but there are too few of them. Nevertheless, they, as well as independent voices such as the few professors who know Lean well, must develop simple messages and repeat them often to undermine confirmation bias. We must focus on facts to overcome preconceptions.

And, lest we get too full of ourselves, Taiichi Ohno* reminds us of this:

“Another way of stating the essence of the Toyota production system is to say we are doomed to failure if we do not initiate a daily destruction of our various preconceptions.”

Nobody is immune from confirmation bias. Learn how to remove confirmation bias against Lean.


* T. Ohno with Setsuo Mito, Just-In-Time For Today an Tomorrow, Productivity Press, Cambridge, MA, 1988, p. xii

10 Responses to Lean’s Kiss Of Death

  1. Jeff Morrow says:

    No matter what you say I know I am immune to confirmation bias.

    Doesn’t your research into 20th Century production methods suggest that, as in science, progress in management occurs at funerals? Perhaps not actual funerals, but the “pursue other opportunities and spend more time with family” kind.

    In defense of resignation to conventional thinking, though, commercial context bounds the possible – it’s hard to succeed as a progressive island in a supply web sea of conventionality.

  2. Troy Taylor says:

    Bob, again an amazing post, well done and well considered.

    I have come to realise that in order to instill the culture that breeds successful and sustainable progressive management that we first have to erradicate the existing culture. A public demonstration of the application of this methodology can be seen in television shows such as “the biggest loser” or even “Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen nightmares” both of these shows consistently have dramatic results and both follow the same simple format.

    1. Understand the current culture, beliefs etc.
    2. Harshly and vigorously demonstrate how the existing culture is fundamentally detrimental to the achievement of the desired state. Thereby killing it off in the mind of the perpetrator.
    3. Demonstrate a new set of behaviours/culture that clearly facilitates a step towards the desired state.
    4. Teach the new model and mentor through its practice.
    5. Review periodically.

    This approach would be a difficult sell for a consultant. The other, and more lucrative option for the consultant, would be to attempt to build something alongside the existing culture and wait for the stakeholders to change in the hope that this will introduce people of the correct mindset. Unfortunately this approach almost always fails and when it does succeed is the result of timing more than anything else.

    My opinion is that you are in a better position, than most, to influence the future of Progressive management into a reality by teaching the next generation of managers, from the start the progressive approach.

    Then again this could all just be my own confirmation bias speaking?

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      RE: [I am] in a better position to influence the future of Progressive management into a reality by teaching the next generation of managers…

      Time will tell.

  3. Rick Bohan says:

    Good post but I’m going to quibble a bit. You seem to present the situation as something of a us vs. them paradigm that calls for a counselor or a mediator…”us” being “progressive management” and “them” being “conventional management”. Sure, there are managers who actively resist lean concepts and methods but, in my own experience, managers who acknowledge and even profess the efficacy of lean methods are just as likely to be ineffective.

    I’m very much on board with and fully accept the position that regular exercise and a healthy diet is the road to a long, happy life…and I’m 40 pounds overweight.

    My problem and the problem with many (maybe most) managers is not that we need to change our ideologies. Our problem is that we simply need to do something different.

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      Thank you for your comment. Agreed. Acknowledgment and professing the efficacy of lean methods, but not actually doing anything, suggests deep-seated disagreement. Appearing to be on-board is a political solution to the problem of not wanting to change or do anything different.

  4. Warwick Carter says:

    A very well written piece, and a problem that is seen all too often.

    There are two comments that I’d like to make. Firstly, the six criticisms of Lean did not evolve in a vacuum. They came from real experiences with Lean implementations. Poorly done Lean. Misapplied Lean. Even conventional management misbranded Lean. If you think it doesn’t matter because true Lean will always come through – think of any other belief system with an image problem. The adherents are all thinking the same as you.

    Only by relentlessly living the belief, calling out the “false doctrine” and ensuring that credit is always paid to the belief system – to Lean in this case – for the benefits that come can the ignorance be overcome.

    The other point is that perhaps – just perhaps – the conventional manager has a point. Perhaps the constraint is not found where the traditional lean eyes are looking. Respect for the person, and recognition that the guy doing the job knows what he’s doing extends to Managers too. OK, sometimes not, but the problem with confirmation bias is that it is infectious. Perhaps our own bias needs to be examined as we explore together with the traditional manager ways to meet mutually acceptable goals.

    Thanks for a very considered and thought provoking post.

  5. Mark DeLuzio says:

    Bob, great blog as usual. It would be interesting to explore how compensation systems, which are usually dysfunctional, play a role in Confirmation Bias. Most environments are not “blameless” and I find many of my clients waste more time defending an indefensible position rather than seeking a better way, even if they did not invent it.

    Compensation systems focus on the result and not the process, which leads to various dysfunctional behaviors. For example, in an effort to preserve gross margin, companies focus on Purchase Price Variance which drives up inventory investment and drives down quality while extending lead times. I believe that compensation systems that focus on the result and not the process (that gets the result) is a major factor as to why Confirmation Bias thrives today. Your thoughts?

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      Hi Mark – Thanks for the feedback. I agree with you that executive compensation practices are dysfunction and that it rewards results, not process. Executive compensation should be based on a combination of both process and results, where the process part relates to executive participation and application of Lean principles and practices.

      Executives waste time (and money and reputation) defending indefensible positions because they are measured on results. As a result, they can easily stall improvement efforts. Your purchase price variance (PPV) example also shows a willingness among executive to accept bad metrics and to not think how the metric generates waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness – and how different metrics would drive improvement. Again, as you note, this is one consequence of results-based executive compensation.

      Here is a paper we wrote in 2005 describing the games people play with the PPV metric, and the waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness that results from it. It should be required reading by all executives and auditors.

  6. Tony Heath says:

    Bob. Incisive post as usual. I was once a family therapist and I use my old skills often as a Lean process improvement guy.

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