Are Lean People Stupid?

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No, not stupid, but certainly blind to how their rhetoric is interpreted by those whom they wish to influence most — CEOs. We have all done it. I as well as most others, people you know and don’t know. Frederick Winslow Taylor did it. Taiichi Ohno did it. Our beloved and iconic Lean CEO, Art Byrne, does it all the time. So do James Womack, Daniel Jones, John Toussaint, and many more. We use language that sabotages our own interests and desires for change and improvement in the practice of management and leadership.

Whenever we talk or write about Lean management, we describe it as: “Lean transformation,” “radically different,” “fundamentally different,” “revolution in thinking,” ” a mental revolution,” “revolutionize manufacturing,” “revolutionize healthcare,” “Lean revolution,” “everything must change,” “mental detox,” “unlearning,” “culture change,” “personal transformation,” etc. These descriptions do more to assure that everything stays the same than people realize. Business leaders do not like that kind of talk. It conjures an idealism that pragmatists detest and a disturbance they will do everything to avoid or crush.

These words and phrases are perceived as progressive rallying cries; a radical agenda that seeks to wipe away classical management instead of finding solutions to specific problems contained with the existing system of classical management. Many of our iconic Lean CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and other Lean promoters are conservative businesspeople (a seeming oxymoron) who have fallen into the trap of proffering what their executive peers see as a radical progressive agenda.

We are perpetually overconfident in our use of these terms as helpful for motivating leaders to abandon classical management and accept Lean management. We are naïve when we think that these are winning words and phrases. And we persist in using these terms despite the overwhelming evidence from the last 30 years that they are ineffective at changing leaders’ minds. In this regard, we probably are stupid.

Does anyone stop to think that using these words and phrases are more likely to lose support for Lean management rather than gain support for it among CEOs? It seems not. There is so much energy and enthusiasm for Lean that the ways in which it is described and communicated run on an amateur level — unchanged for decades.


Characterizing the change in management thinking and practice as something grandiose, immense, and lofty is one of 14 recurring mistakes that I identified in my new book, Improvement: A Hundred-Year Plan for Progressive Management. Efforts to broadly advance progressive management since the early 1900s persistently falter because of these same 14 mistakes. To advance an improved management thinking and practice, one that is more commensurate with needs, requires an understanding of the 14 recurring mistakes and a thinking how to avoid them. But, alas, the damage is done. These words and phrases are forever documented in books, articles, blog posts, videos, training materials, and so on. They are part of the Lean lexicon. Recovery will not be easy.

To make matters worse, Lean management has been variously characterized as:

  • Production system
  • Management system
  • Learning system
  • People development system
  • Problem-solving
  • Strategy
  • Mindset
  • Kanban + kaizen
  • Making work easier

Most CEOs will respond to these eight characterizations this way:

  • “We have a production system that works”
  • “We have a management system that works”
  • “Employees learn, one way or another”
  • “Employees develop, one way or another”
  • “Employees solve problems”
  • “We have a strategy”
  • “Our mindset is right and good”
  • “What the fuck does that mean?”
  • “Work is supposed to be hard”

It is easy to imagine CEOs saying: “We don’t need Lean, whatever the heck it is.” It’s also easy to imagine them laughing at the blundering ways in which Lean is described, communicated, and promoted, and the sense of desperation that these varied characterizations suggest. It’s hard to image how we correct this mistake (and 13 others) with the current base of understanding. The book Improvement: A Hundred-Year Plan for Progressive Management describes the mistakes and offers ideas for improvement. Let’s use our intelligence and creativity to make needed improvements before this latest incarnation of progressive management slips away.

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