Lean and Cultural Appropriation

On 15 July 2021, The Lean Enterprise Academy (LEA) posted the image shown below (left side) on LinkedIn. My comment to the post was: “Birth of TPS.” Meaning, the title of the book, The Birth of Lean was incorrect. Many people agreed with (“Liked”) my comment, which is historically and factually correct based on the content of the book.

LEA countered with the comment: “The book title is correct and shouldn’t be changed.” I replied: “The book title is obviously incorrect and should be changed. It is both historically and factually inaccurate. Toyota did not give birth to Lean. Lean (ca.1988) came after the creation of TPS (ca. 1973). Lean and TPS are not the same thing, despite your protestations. The ethical thing to do would be to change the title and not mislead your customers. It’s not difficult to do the right thing.”

The term “Lean” was birthed by White researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying — discovering — Toyota’s production system in the mid-to-late 1980s (see the 1990 book The Machine That Changed the World, pages 4-6), and thus came years after Toyota’s Production system was fully developed. A simple, yet inconvenient fact.

Another inconvenient fact is that the book The Birth of Lean is an English republication of a 2001 Japanese edition titled The Origin of the Toyota System by Koichi Shimokawa and Takahiro Fujimoto. Why did the title change for the English edition? Presumably for commercial purposes.

Later that day I posted on LinkedIn the image shown on the right, in which I specifically called out the book title as an example of cultural appropriation and suggested that the book title should be changed to be both accurate and to avoid misleading readers.

Appropriation

At one time (late 1980s to around 2000) “Lean,” was meant to be a generic term for Toyota’s Production system. Lean, being a Western derivative (simplified) interpretation of Toyota’s production system. But post-2000, the creators of Lean began to promote Lean as being equivalent to TPS and Toyota’s overall management system. The lines between Lean and TPS became blurred, perhaps intentionally — a disingenuous and misleading rebranding of TPS as Lean, not for the benefit of customers, but for the benefit of the business of Lean and its most prominent promoters. However, TPS and Lean are not the same, in part because much gets lost in translation from Japanese to English.

In my view, the book title, The Birth of Lean, is a clear example of cultural appropriation — a co-option of TPS and Toyota’s management system made less foreign and thus more suitable to a Western audience. As is the book titled Toyota Kata. This begs the larger question of whether Lean management itself is cultural appropriation.

I have been part of the community seeking to inform people about progressive management and to profit from Lean and Toyota’s management system, having at one time being seduced into thinking Lean and TPS were the same. While Toyota Motor Corporation has to some extent seemed to embrace the term “Lean,” I wonder if an apology is in order for being disrespectful and failing to support and honor those who labored to create and evolve Toyota’s production system and overall management system. This seems necessary because Western names associated with Lean long ago became more prominent than the Japanese names associated with TPS, thus erasing the people and culture.

The names James Womack, Daniel Jones, Jeffrey Liker, Michael Rother, and Michael Ballé (all White) are better known globally than Kiichiro Toyota, Eiji Toyoda, Taiichi Ohno, Fujio Cho, and Kikuo Suzumura.

For this and other reasons — association of Lean with layoffs, muddled understanding of Lean, executive disinterest in Lean — perhaps we should move on from Lean and circle back to the mindset and methods that matter most in relation to current and future business and human challenges: TPS and The Toyota Way.

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