We owe a debt of gratitude to the MIT researchers who introduced the world to Lean, led in part by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones. Their work changed lives in important ways, ranging from developing a stronger, more insightful intellect, useful in all facets of life, to embarking on challenging new careers and improving processes in a wide range of industries.
Yet, it seems the time is right to reflect and re-calibrate. If you follow the Lean movement closely, you will recognize what I say below. If you don’t follow it closely, these words will be foreign to you. And they will likely upset you, possibly deeply. I apologize.
The thinking among the current, first generation, Lean movement leaders and associated organizations has gone stale. It is weighed down by the limited MIT interpretation of Toyota’s management system, and it has been too busy promoting and not doing enough thinking. The focus has long been on the few Lean success stories while ignoring the many Lean failures. They fail to acknowledge the depth and breadth of Fake Lean and failed Lean transformations (abnormal conditions), with no apparent interest in their root causes or countermeasures. The damage done to Lean management and to the Lean movement is consequential, yet they do not seem up to the task of doing anything about it.
Most first generation Lean movement leaders have scarcely evolved in their understanding and presentation of Lean management from the start, beginning in the mid-1980s. And in the few instances where they have evolved, it is to a point where they should have begun; e.g. Lean management, leadership, leadership behaviors, respect for people, kaizen, etc. Criticism, fundamental as it is to improvement, is dismissed as ill-informed, misunderstandings, personal agendas, sour grapes, or other nonsense.
This proves to me that basic tenets – customer first, seeing reality, being fact-based, go see, asking why – are dissipating in favor of other interests. Defensive routines are displacing bedrock critical thinking. Intellectual rigor is slipping. Listening and learning take on lesser importance when one no longer evolves.
First generation organizations promoting Lean live in an insular, closed-minded, self-reinforcing, self-congratulatory bubble. They are a transparently self-serving mutual admiration club, offering loud praise for their intimates and silent scorn to outsiders. They protect their brand and their vested interests to the detriment of both Lean management and the Lean movement. They are neither inclusive in spirit nor diverse in thinking or population. And they are more akin to aristocracy than the humble servants that they should be. This, after nearly 30 years.
Will this path help assure Lean’s survival long-term? It seems unlikely. Profound and long-running problems cannot be reckoned with under such stagnant conditions. Persons and organizations promoting Lean cannot be more important than Lean management itself or the Lean movement.
Lean advocates are nothing more than temporary standard-bearers in an important and worthwhile movement. For each, their time will come and then fade away. First generation, followed by the second generation, and so on. Yet without reflection and re-calibration, and a re-imagining by the second generation, the Lean movement may not flourish in the future. Changing times require the second generation to be less dependent on individuals and organizations, and they should be more discerning and think for themselves.
The second generation’s time is near. Their charge is to re-acquaint themselves with classic Toyota ways of thinking – especially Taiichi Ohno’s thinking (1, 2, 3). They should learn from the first generation’s mistakes, define a new target, carefully analyze Lean transformation failures, further decode successes, marshal resources, find new allies, build broader coalitions, pursue greater social and intellectual diversity, move forward, and evolve.