Lately I’ve been speaking to many people from around the world about Lean leadership and Lean management. The conversations were very interesting and I have learned a lot. A common theme was that people are frustrated in their efforts to advance Lean in their organization. Some are doing well relative to others, but they too struggle. Overall, people continue to experience pain and frustration in trying to get top leaders to abandon classical management and replace it with Lean management. Executives, knowing nothing more than a few Lean concepts, delegate their job to lead change and saddle earnest Lean people with enormous pressure to deliver on unachievable business (numbers) and organizational (people) results. Despite good efforts, leaders shut them down again and again. And far too many Lean people who have been made to think they are the problem when, in fact, they are not. It has been this way for more than 30 years.
Through one’s own initiative, through the inspiring work of others (e.g. best-selling Lean authors, charismatic senseis, and the few successful Lean CEOs), or through corporate edicts, hundreds of thousands of people have become evangelists for Lean management. Unfortunately, nearly every single person went into “battle” ill-prepared and ill-equipped to succeed. Some got lucky, but the vast majority did not. Despite this, many people remain committed to Lean, while others question their commitment or have left Lean and moved on. It breaks down along the lines of those who will fight to the end to achieve a better future state, the wavering, and those who have succumbed to or accepted the realism of the current state — classical management.
It was apparent decades ago that there were more Lean transformation process failures than successes. Everyone could see the problem but almost no one thought it worthy of comprehensive study. Why? Perhaps because it would expose fundamental weaknesses that could undercut the business of Lean — what I have previously called the “Lean industrial complex,” where success in the business of Lean is commonly conceived as evidence of having attained wisdom about Lean. Instead of curiosity-driven analysis of a critically important problem (see books at right), the directives that have been given for more than a decade, whether by self or (more likely) others, reflect business as usual: “be persistent and success will follow,” “try this tool and see if it helps,” and “keep doing what you are doing.” And so additional years passed but the result is the same: more Lean transformation process failure than success.
For a movement that prides and congratulates itself on its dedication to “Respect for People,” the unwillingness to dig into the #1 problem is deeply disrespectful of dedicated Lean people and borders on the immoral. And for a movement that that is so focused on facts, seeing reality, and structured problem-solving, the #1 problem has been largely dismissed from existence. But, that is what top leaders, including those whose business is Lean, are prone to do: dismiss the facts that all can easily see in favor of make-believe, to avoid diminishing their status, rights, and privileges.
The great difficulties that Lean people have had to endure, year after year, is a type of malpractice that one would not expect from Lean movement leaders. People are aroused into action to single-mindedly plow forward with Lean, only to have their dreams and best efforts crushed by leaders who have no interest in changing the method of leadership and management. The equipment needed to go into “battle,” Lean training and Lean tools, have proven to be inadequate for the task. So too the ceaseless superficial hype, gleeful stories, conference-going, cheerleading, and the coterie of mutual admiration. Though perhaps unavoidable, these are unrelated to the problem at hand. In classical management, leaders think it is OK for people to struggle. How and why did this view become acceptable in people’s efforts to advance Lean management? It appears that the business of Lean is more important than your pain and frustration. The comfort resulting from financially prospering from Lean is not to be confused with your suffering. These are two different things. Why should Lean practitioners have allegiance to that?
It seems there is enough pain and frustration with Lean to warrant the start of something akin to Alcoholics Anonymous, a fellowship of mutual aid, to help people process their anguish, unfulfilled dreams, and perceived personal shortcomings — Lean Anonymous. Hey! Isn’t that a new business opportunity? Lean Anonymous represents more than just an absurd business idea. Lean promoters set out decades ago to teach business leaders that they did not understand how business worked. Instead, the reverse happened. Business leaders taught the Lean promoters how business works. Those in charge of the business of Lean learned their lessons well.