The term “Lean” has been with us for nearly 30 years. We proponents of Lean tell others that Lean management is superior to conventional management in every way – better in every business metric and better for employees, suppliers, customers, investors, communities, and even for competitors because it helps them avoid complacency.

The benefits of Lean have been realized in several organizations and well-documented. We point to these examples to illustrate the benefits and as evidence of how “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” combine to create great organizations that people love to work in.

Yet, despite our efforts to sell Lean management, success remains highly dependent on the ability of the top leaders of an organization to practice and understand it. This is something that is largely out of our control. As a result, experience to-date clearly informs us that Fake Lean is far more prevalent than Real Lean. We can assign responsibility for the existence of Fake Lean to top leaders all we want, but stakeholders, especially employees, don’t care about that. All they care about is that they are not seeing the much ballyhooed benefits of Lean management. And, as bosses come and go, employees are far more likely to blame Lean for problems they experienced rather than their bosses or Taiicho Ohno.

But, it may be worse than we realize. Many people in the baby-boomer generation have suffered layoffs or other workplace problems due to Lean. They have been injured by Lean, not helped by it. And their children, the next generation, know that either explicitly or implicitly. If something does not help, then why use it or even think about it?

If the younger generation knows Lean mostly in a negative context, then that helps explain the allure of start-up companies. These companies do not have the entrenched bad processes, bad leadership, and bad daily management habits that signal the need for Lean transformation. Young people would rather work at Google than General Motors.

Notably, the old, established industrial businesses have been experiencing high turnover among the younger generation because these dinosaur companies do not meet their expectations for an empowering and respectful workplace. The leaders of such organizations failed to realize, long ago, how Lean management could have helped satisfy those future (now present) needs. Instead, they misunderstood Lean and used it incorrectly to satisfy short-term financial needs (stock price), for negative cost-cutting and layoffs, and for stultifying conformance to unchanging standards. And, as this unfolded over two decades, the leading Lean advocates were largely silent.

The younger generation is making sensible, pragmatic choices in their employment decisions.

As advocates of Lean, we can be accused of over-promising and under-delivering, and we therefore have a steep uphill challenge to correct negative opinions. It will be a tough sell to get the next generation to take up the challenge of embracing Lean and moving it forward. Yet, we must try, because we know in our hearts that Lean management, and especially kaizen, is the kind of fun that young people want to have in the workplace. And kaizen gives them the opportunity to make meaningful contributions every day.

What has been broken must be repaired. For Lean to become something more than a niche management practice, it has to prove itself as beneficial to ever-larger numbers of people and deliver on its promise to make work easier and stakeholders more, not less, prosperous.

5 Responses to Lean’s Promise Broken

  1. RalfLippold says:

    Thanks Bob for making a case for “bringing back on track” lean and what it really means. I am reading right now “The Machine that Changed the World” by Womack/Jones/Ross (actually the written outcome for the public audience of a several year long research project starting in 1979 called the MIT International Motor Vehicle Program – for all who are not familiar with the history of “lean”).

    Going through the lines it is like a deja-vu, “lean” is multi-faced, not just bound to the automobile industry or physical production (as some people believe and propagate), or a “hip-sounding” to scale startups in an efficient way (that is what I often hear about “lean startup”), and even companies that (think to) do “lean” in a broad sense are much further in thinking and culture within their organizations than the European and North American companies in the MIT IMVP were compared to the Japanese). When I joined a well-known automotive company back in 2003 I was more than glad to finally make use of “lean thinking” (I learnt about Toyota and their approach in the mid-90s at university, got more than just exited, and was eager to put learning and already experienced practice in supply chain and organizational management to practice).

    And it hit me – “lean” was a “bad word”. Why? What had happened despite the fact that lean rather than a set of tools (which of course come into play) is rather a broader mindset generally seeking to achieve and create more with given resources in a more eLEgANt (coincidence?) way?

    1. University professors were sure that the theory the had been doing in class was already well established in the corporate world, and they had to be on the jump for the “next new thing” to teach their students (who eventually become managers)

    2. Managers (especially middle and higher ranked) were unwilling to go for lean because this implied that they had not done a good job before

    3. All other people not being in the automotive production field where the final car was assembled sort did not think it would be their job to transform along side

    4. Lean sounded right only when standardized measures and approaches could be sold by consultants

    … and so some got it right, preach and live it alike (like often smaller SMEs whose owners have had a epiphany, and see the benefits of Lean to the whole organization and especially workforce). Whereas most still wait for the “silver bullet” (from some mysterious outside force in form of experts) yet never try to question the status quote starting with a question such as,

    “What is the reason that we constantly get these results despite our planning was correct?”

    … not stopping at the first plausible answer, and move on.

    Just my 2-cents being brought in a lean attitude from my earliest days in the 60s as my mother and father had to struggle with similar issues as Toyota had especially after the war, little resources and growing demand (a four people family to feed in our case). It only struck me some thirty years later when I was reflecting about the fact why Lean had such a strong impact on me in such a way, and had made me such a strong believer and enthusiastic Lean Evangelist starting even a public group on a social network (XING) to pull interest of others (friends, co-workers, and bosses).

    Perhaps it just needs an interweaving of all the different, and heterogenous stories that people have in them that led them to live and work in a Lean Way – breaking loose from the boundaries of thinking that Lean is only it when sold to you with a “lean label”.

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      It is only when one commits to thinking deeply about a problem, such as the absence of flow, does one truly begin to access their innovative and creative potential.

      Therefore, what you wrote make a lot of sense to me: “…breaking loose from the boundaries of thinking that Lean is only it when sold to you with a ‘lean label’.”

      It is a mindset devoted to recognizing problems and accessing one’s creativity rather than a “thing.” Read the second paragraph of and replace the words “scientific management” with “Lean.”

      • RalfLippold says:

        Thanks a lot Bob for your reply, and pointing to the 1913(!) paper on “scientific management”. The parallels are stunning.

        Can we learn from history? What is holding us back (in case we don’t learn from it currently)? What hinders people to recognize the patterns in life as well as in business context (especially over a longer time span)?

        • Bob Emiliani says:

          Indeed, the parallels are stunning. Had we been better informed of the history of Scientific Management, I think that Lean management might have been presented and promoted differently. The problems that we faced might have been the same, but their intensity would have been lessened because we would have been better prepared to confront them.

  2. Brad White says:

    Great article! I’ve been in situations building management systems when I realized that, far from being ineffective, lean would be too effective to be trusted to those leaders. They saw the power and skipped over the philosophical change. I often wonder how many people suffered because of that implementation.

    Thank you for posting a clarion call back to sanity.

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