Cancelling Lean Culture


Lean people believe that a Lean culture is superior to the culture found in classically managed organizations. The belief is based on facts gained through experience, though for some it is based on reports found in books and articles. It is often informed by having worked in different places where one directly experienced both types of culture and found Lean culture superior to classical management culture (my case). We also know that in a successful Lean transformation, some people dislike the new Lean culture and leave, while most others are very happy with the new culture.

The change from classical management culture to Lean management culture principally involves changes in social, political, historical, philosophical, and spiritual norms. The economic, business, and legal norms remain about the same. Lean management thus represents and embodies liberalization of certain norms. This liberalization of norms is an outcome that is opposite of what is desired under the aegis of classical management. The rigid hierarchical structure and functioning of classical management seeks to preserve status and associated rights and privileges and perpetuate long-established norms of thinking and doing.

What confounds Lean people is the unwillingness of most leaders to create a Lean culture. Obviously, leaders do not do so because they are highly satisfied with classical management culture. But they are not the only ones who are satisfied. In my estimation, most salaried and hourly employees are also satisfied with classical management culture and have difficulty imagining something better or something that will be sustainable (i.e., not taken away at some later date). Perhaps 5 to 10 percent of employees are truly dissatisfied (“the outliers”), and these are likely the people who try very hard to promote Lean management internally, usually to little avail. Consequently, what we have is a situation of conservatism in relation to culture; the social, political, historical, philosophical, and spiritual norms that define classical management culture, thus retarding change. And it may in fact be worse than we realize, as efforts to liberalize certain norms may drive people towards greater conservatism in relation to culture.


Lean people have a voracious appetite for Toyota. They love to know anything and everything about Toyota — what Toyota did, is doing, or will do, down to every detail. Toyota is the god of progressive management, the venerated symbol of true Lean management, as represented by the totem image at right (the image is from my book Management Mysterium, The Quest for Progress, p. 93). People are so focused on Toyota, so busy worshipping Toyota, that they pay no attention to their formidable and entrenched adversary, classical management. It has been widely assumed that the norms of classical management are understood well enough that it can be ignored. But alas, after 33 years of Lean we still have precious few examples of organizational transformation.

So it turns out that knowing about Toyota in every detail is not nearly as important as knowing about classical management in every detail — how it came to be, why it is cherished, why it endures, and why it has been so effective at cancelling Lean culture.

The books shown below thoroughly disprove the assumption that the norms of classical management culture are understood, and it further disproves the assumption that classical management can be ignored in favor of simply knowing all about Toyota. One must know both in order to make greater progress, unless you are satisfied with the current state. In that case, knowing all about Toyota is good enough.


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