1988 was a significant year in the history of modern progressive management. It was the start of “The Great Divergence,” wherein Toyota’s Production System (TPS) and Kaizen were reformulated into a Western interpretation called “Lean.” This divergence led to “The Great Confusion” — Is Lean the Same as TPS? — that remains with us today, 36 years later, and will likely continue far into the future.

Great Divergence 1

In May 1988, eighteen months after Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success was published in 1986, the Kaizen Institute (founded in 1985) teamed up with Shingijutsu (founded in 1987) to deliver TPS, Just-in-Time, and Kaizen training. Six months later, John Krafcik’s paper, “Triumph of the Lean Production System,” was published in the Fall 1988 edition of Sloan Management Review and introduced the term “Lean” to describe TPS.

The image above depicts something that is very important: The left side (red arrow) has been consistent for more than 36 years, while the right side (blue arrow), due to dedicated marketing and sales efforts, led to the de-evolution of Lean into “Lean tools.”

The popular Lean tools were long ago absorbed into the common practice of classical management, and thus bear no resemblance to Lean’s original form (Krafcik’s paper and later the 1990 book by Womack, Jones, and Roos) and certainly no relation whatsoever to TPS, JIT, and Kaizen — these being the fundamental ideas that were eagerly traded away to sell Lean tools and Lean tool training.

Today, Lean is a zombie — both no more yet still around, lacking in both leadership and vision. It is a sad tale of trying to do good but making so many poor decisions along the way, beginning with Learning to See in 1999. I can honestly say I am very happy that “Lean” was not my invention.

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