When employees get laid off from a company, so do Lean tools. Fewer employees due to layoffs or reduced hiring due to the introduction of new technologies means less demand for and use of Lean tools. And business leaders always opt for new technologies over employees. At some point, probably soon, artificial intelligence (AI) will incorporate Lean tools that the remaining employees may or many not use. What, then, happens to the business of Lean, which has thrived for over 35 years on selling Lean tool books and Lean tool training courses?
As I said in my book Improvement: A Hundred-Year Plan for Progressive Management (2020, page xviii):
The persistent attraction to using tools to solve problems likely has its origins in human evolution, wherein tools were invented as means to aid in survival. The use of tools goes back millions of years and is presumably encoded into human thinking. In contrast, the need for humans to think in terms of systems probably occurred about 10,000 years ago when communities began to domesticate plants and animals. A more pressing need for widespread systems thinking probably occurred in the late Middle Ages and subsequently into the industrial revolution. Consequently, systems thinking in the management of people’s work is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Hence, there remains a strong tendency, perhaps an instinct, to reduce systems to discrete tools that are used as needs dictate. While progressive management advocates condemn the persistent reduction of systems to tools, the fact is that people may not be able to help themselves to see differently without strong and continuing education, guidance, and support from leaders, coaches, or mentors.
That being the case, human’s use of tools will continue, but maybe not in the ways they have been used in the past. In the future, the use of tools will almost certainly drift further away from pencil-and-paper and people-to-people to computer-generated and computer-assisted use of tools that people use.
For example, AI can be trained to generate value stream maps based on information contained in manufacturing and purchasing databases. AI will also be able to serve as a virtual coach for employees at all levels, needing only to be trained for a few minutes in the many books and articles published on coaching, kata, and gemba walks (which currently can be done with impunity). It will not be perfect, but it will be good enough and AI virtual coaches will quickly improve over time. A3 reports will decline in use as managers, rightly or wrongly, defer to AI for understanding problems and providing solutions. AI is now as good or will soon be better at critical thinking than managers — notwithstand leaders’ rejection of advice or criticism that it dislikes or deems incorrect or insulting. And gemba walks will surely be done by robots given most leaders’ strong distaste for engaging shop and office floor workers.
The Lean-Industrial Complex has long thrived on the premise, “The more confused you are, the more money we make!” AI is poised to significantly reduce confusion and dry up sources of revenue for those engaged in the business of Lean. Bruno Vasquez makes a brilliant point when he said recently:
The Toyota Production System is vastly superior to Lean. Lean, in general, since it doesn’t even have a ‘right’ owner, is a commonly weak interpretation, and one that doesn’t improve, because it always has the excuse of being ‘a generic and expanded adaptation.’
The Toyota Production System has an owner, Toyota, but Lean does not. As such, Lean lacks integrity, meaning, there was no owner to fight for Lean to prevent its dilution and abuse. (e.g., for some, Lean means 5S 😂). The titular owners of Lean management, the Lean Enterprise Institute and the Lean Enterprise Academy failed — assuming they even tried — to maintain ownership for Lean to assure its integrity over time. The reduction of Lean to popular tools for basic problem-solving entirely misses the point of Lean’s original meaning. To say that opportunity has been lost is an understatement.
The encoding of tools in human evolution will not be undone anytime soon despite the earnest efforts of system and complexity science thinkers and trainers. Systems thinking is not yet in our nature, and AI and whatever comes after that will likely assure that it will never be. The AI system will do systems thinking and AI will unravel complexity better than humans can, but real-word results, clouded by archaic human preconceptions, may be only marginally better.
The glory days of Lean may be behind us, and so the providers of Lean tools training will have to make adjustments to their business model. But that does not necessarily eliminate the need for TPS and kaizen because AI bots or AI agents will almost surely direct managers to do in the future what they have done in the past — which is the continued decoupling of supply and demand, resulting in excess inventories and higher costs (for that and other reasons including throughput, quality, and lead-time problems). In other words, dissatisfied customers will still exist.
And part of higher costs, when seen from the view of classical management, is training employees. AI has proven itself to be much more responsive to training than people are. Humans interacting with AI is a new type of social learning that is likely to be much more impactful to learning than most types of classroom training. So why should business leaders bother to invest in training workers in the costly traditional ways? Leaders will reserve that for themselves and their successors.