The language used by Taiichi Ohno to guide the development of the Toyota production system (TPS), and in his later descriptions of TPS (in Japanese), was precise (read Jun Nakamouro’s excellent article). In kaizen with sensei Chihiro Nakao, who was mentored and trained by Ohno-san, Nakao-san guides people on the precise use of language. He views this as a very important component of kaizen because understanding is impaired and improvement is wrong, poor, or delayed when language is imprecise. Having written books in collaboration with Nakao-san about his teachings and Shingijutsu-Kaizen, and can tell you from experience the great importance he places on precise language.

Yet, when we exit TPS and enter the world of Lean, the use of precise language – as well as its importance – begins to falter. It falters ways that significantly affect our understanding and practice, and hence the human outcomes and business results that are achieved. Material and information flow diagrams became “value stream maps.” Kaizen became “continuous improvement,” with a major loss of context. And our understanding of “work” and “waste” are also imprecise. Most think the word “people” in “Respect for People” means employees, when it actually means employees, suppliers, customers, investors, and communities, possibly other stakeholders, and humanity.

Click on image to enlarge.

Another example is the title and role of people who train others in Lean. Are they teachers (sensei), trainers, or coaches? Are they faculty? Who uses the term faculty? For almost two decades, the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) and the Lean Enterprise Academy (LEA) have referred to their trainers as “faculty” (and recently added “Guest Lecturers”). That is an odd description. I know of no other organization that uses the term “faculty” for people who deliver training to industry (and who are mainly consultants). The commonly accepted definition of faculty is “the teaching and administrative staff and those members of the administration having academic rank in an educational institution” (Merriam-Webster).

Within the sphere of educating adults, the attainment of academic rank is achieved through a combination of earned degrees and academic experience. The requirement for teaching is an earned terminal degrees such as Ph.D. or Sc.D. In professional schools such as business, law, or medicine, degrees such as M.S., M.B.A., J.D., or M.D. serve as an initial qualification for teaching in certain degree programs. Academic experience includes teaching, research, service on university committees (faculty governance), service to one’s profession (journal editor, academic conference chair), and may also include industry work experience (prior to becoming a faculty member or during sabbatical leaves). Academic rank (lecturer, assistant, associate, full professor) is determined by a multi-step, merit-based peer-review process called “promotion and tenure.”

While both LEI and LEA are not-for-profits, neither organization is structured as an educational institution (click here to read the U.S. government definition of an institution of higher education), nor do they confer academic rank. In relation to the common usage of the term “faculty” in education, its use by the Lean Enterprise Institute and the Lean Enterprise Academy is surely misleading to its customers. It is pretentious and it carries with it a huge sense of arrogance and puffery, behaviors that are the exact opposite of what we learn from Toyota leaders (e.g. humility) – yet another language imprecision.

Do LEI and LEA trainers correct the many language and other imprecisions associated with Lean management? Or do they perpetuate the imprecisions? If it is the latter – and it surely is – then they are not “faculty” in any sense of the word. They are, instead, a collection of regular businesspeople (employees, freelancers, and small business owners) hired to do a training job but, apparently, not improve the job if one must adhere to Lean orthodoxy.

Here is another important example of the use of imprecise language:

Toyota is how the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI), led by James P. Womack, and the Lean Enterprise Academy (LEA), led by Daniel T. Jones, have long wanted us to think about Lean. And they succeeded: When we think of Lean, we do think of Toyota; we think of Toyota’s production system and now we think of Toyota’s management system. The imprecise language, the stated equivalency between the Lean and Toyota, has great bearing on people, process, and outcomes. It means that people will ignore important things such as Taiichi Ohno’s well-informed warnings, based on his long experience in Toyota and in his work with the Toyota’s parts suppliers:

“Companies make a big mistake in implementing the Toyota production system thinking that it is just a production method. The Toyota production method won’t work unless it is used as an overall management system… those who decide to implement the Toyota production system must be fully committed. If you try to adopt only the ‘good parts’, you’ll fail.” (T. Ohno in NPS: New Production System, I. Shinohara, Productivity Press, Cambridge, MA, 1988, pp. 153 and 155).

No similar warnings exist for Lean. Why not? Certainly this warning applies to Lean management if it is indeed actually the same as Toyota management. Womack and Jones have yet to issue such practical warnings.

The basis for criticism of Lean is its many imprecisions as a derivative of TPS. Click image to enlarge.

Given the poor record of Lean success in so many organizations worldwide, we must ask questions such as: 1) Why was the connection between the production system and overall management system missed or ignored for so long? The two cannot be independent of one another. 2) Why was Lean presented as “lean production” for 20 years, and “lean management” post-2008, when information such as that contained in the quote above was available to the MIT researchers, was likely articulated by many of the Toyota senior managers they interviewed while conducting research and surely thereafter, and was described as a management system in the early 1990s by other researchers such as Yasuhiro Monden? 3) Is Lean, in fact, “only the good parts” of Toyota’s production system? If so, then it clearly sets people up to fail. Does that respect people? 4) Is Lean itself fully committed? Meaning, the researchers from MIT who gave us “lean” under the pretext as being synonymous with Toyota’s production system beginning in 1988, and today as synonymous with Toyota management (TPS and The Toyota Way)? Have they been fully committed to adopting all the parts (mindset and methods), not “only the good parts?”

You can see that imprecise language and other forms of imprecision are not bugs in Lean. Instead, they have been features for 30 years.

My motivation for questioning and criticizing Lean, LEI, LEA, and the work of its founders is related to my role as an actual faculty member whose job it is to seek the truth. The aim of scholarly criticism is to study, evaluate, interpret, and question a subject area or body of knowledge such as Lean, for the overarching purpose of advancing (improving) our understanding and practice.

My work over the last 20 years has focused on questioning the Lean = Toyota equation, which most people easily accept as true, without ever thinking, simply because someone told them it was so. In reality, Lean ≠ Toyota because Lean is imprecise because it is missing major elements of Toyota’s production system, The Toyota Way, and more. I have focused on filling gaps such as: Absence of the “Respect for People” principle (Fake Lean), Lean leadership, Lean as a management system, and analysis of Lean transformation process failures (both mindset and methods).

Management fucks with people’s lives. Management affects people economically, socially, politically, physically, and mentally. Management is a serious and sometimes life-and-death matter. Management practice is no joke, so it is important to get it right. As a member of the Lean community, I feel a great responsibility to do my part to help assure that imprecise language and imprecise derivatives of TPS do not cause harm to people (stakeholders such as employees, suppliers, customers, investors, and communities) – especially employees, who we know have suffered greatly from manager’s misunderstanding and misapplication of Lean over the last 30 years. In other words, I feel a responsibility to respect people. Obviously, not everyone feels that way.

I am a full-time teacher. That means I work in one of the humble “helping” professions. So my purpose is to help people through teaching and learning, with precision, so that they can prosper. Criticism, rooted in my scholarly writing, is one method by which I fulfill this important responsibility. How about you?


If you doubt my motivation or sincerity, please read Motivations and Aspirations, Hopes and Dreams, and Eight Questions I Get From My Students. And also read “What Bob Does” so that you clearly understand what I do and don’t do.

2 Responses to Teachers, Trainers, Coaches, or Faculty?

  1. Manikandan M says:

    Warnings for LEAN/TPS
    1. Kaizen without Objective : Many times companies try to do Kaizen /Lean just to satisfy their Top Mangement.Kaizen should create Customer,company,Employee
    benefit in terms of better satisfaction,better profit and better work environment.
    2. Overconfidence while doing Kaizen in New Genba: Many times Kaizen men fail thinking that they have done so many Kaizen in past .
    So try to apply the old methods/tools without understanding the pre conditions of Genba (Like people mind set , Market condition , Local
    regulation etc). They will fail if they cannot be humble and show the humility,Gratitude to the Genba staff
    3. Do not Copy and Paste: Many times Kaizen man tend to copy the Kaizen idea which worked in another area or genba and try to use it without
    knowing the philosophy behind it. Many companies tries to copy the TPS without adapting to their environment
    4.Do not Push Ideas : TPS is people development and it evolved through many people’s idea,effort. Some times Kaizen instruct
    Just do it in my way without involving the Genba staff and explaining /showing the purpose and benefit .
    In such cases Genba staff will not get motivated and will not change the current status
    5.Doing without plannig or only planning without doing or Planning & doing without Checking : We need to follow PDCA. But no need to wait
    for long planning without doing. Once we start we need to check the progress not the result quickly and adjust the countermeasure.
    Kaizen starts with check and act like in marathon practice you always check the performance and improve your training
    6.Do not Rely on tools to give magic: Tools definitely give a better edge but some time it acts like cutting your leg to fit in to shoes.
    So try as much as possible manual tool before making computer based system to have flexibility.

  2. Yes, that seems to be the situation in the US. Worldwide there have been gurus, consultants and organisations that have worked in a non-lean way earlier on. They have recognised that Lean does not equal Toyota, and that Lean is a subset. An example of this is Edwards Deming and work he inspired worldwide.

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