Lean as Alternative Medicine

Lean Crystals

If Taiichi Ohno were alive today and witnessing what Lean has become — from a generic term for Toyota Production System (TPS) in 1988 to a product that sells quite well but does little to alter the status quo — I think he would be quite unhappy.

Ohno-san reportedly hurt himself with Toyota executives more senior than him for bringing TPS to the world. He sacrificed his own interests for our benefit by writing three books (here, here, and here), creating the New Production System Research Association in Japan, and launching Shingijutsu Consultants (here and here). He gave us these great gifts, not imagining what could go wrong.

Seeing Lean today, I do not think Ohno-san would scold anyone. Instead, he would be irritated by never-ending confusion that Lean’s existence created, recognize the absurdity of it all, utter just one word: mottainai (もったいない), and walk away. He did his job giving us TPS, it is our job to understand it and use it wisely.

Lately, I have been wondering why people are so attracted to Lean, much more so than its mother, TPS. After all, TPS was born in the daily tumult of business, while its child, Lean, was born in the tranquility of the Ivory Tower. I suggest that people’s attraction to Lean is due to a combination of things:

  • Efficiency — Bring to work the kind of efficiency that people experience at home
  • Improvement — Bring order to the daily chaos at work
  • Helping people — Reduce human suffering
  • Knowledge — For empowerment, growth, and satisfaction
  • Learning — Joy of learning (intellectual stimulation)
  • Exclusivity — Knowing what few others know
  • Community — Validation, belonging, and acceptance

In the book Improvement, Appendix II contains a research paper titled: “The Transformation of Lean: A Social Theory of the Lean Movement.” This social critique examined the relationship between the accumulation of “knowledge wealth” about Lean management by salaried professional staff and social status and status-seeking in the Lean community. It turns out that knowledge wealth is a key determinant of social status more so than the actual production of process improvements. Namely, those who are most accomplished in creating a new management system are least recognized.

Another important factor could be that the Western interpretation of TPS appeals more to Westerners in the same way that the American version of the film “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” has greater appeal than the original Swedish version of the film “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Typically, the original is better than the American remake. Additionally, with the original, you learn important details that do not exist in the remake.

Overall, Lean exists more in the realm of belief than action, caused by a preconception of the innate goodness in one’s self and a preconception that one’s work has a purpose or meaning. Actions, of course, are in most cases circumscribed by what management will allow. Nevertheless, belief in Lean remains unshaken despite very limited real-world impact.

Ohno-san valued practical knowledge more than anything else. Such knowledge, and the resulting wisdom, comes from doing hands-on work at the genba. Yet it is clear to me that most people engage with Lean from the perspective of “whatever is, is right,” but it just needs some improvement; i.e., do what we can rather than what we should. In contrast, Ohno-san had the perspective of “whatever is, is wrong,” and so everything needs to change to make progress; a complete break with the status quo in both the thinking and performance of shop and office work Kaizen means to change things, not just tweak things as is so often the case with Lean.

You can make change without progress, but you can’t make progress without change.

Mark Harari

It could be that for many people, Lean is a form of alternative medicine, akin to healing crystals. Lean provides a lot of answers to why so many problems exist at work, even if one personally does little to actually improve the process. Merely understanding why everything is so messed up makes people feel better. Not knowing leads to perpetual confusion, stress, anxiety, and unhappiness. Lean shows the way to a better life at work.

Of course, crystals have no healing effect on the human body. While it is pseudoscience, people with crystals in hand may feel healed by the power of suggestion or the placebo effect. For many, Lean may operate in a similar way: belief in Lean heals the mind, body, and soul. It is an alternative medicine that can cure employees’ ills, but not the company’s ills.

This is not an outcome that Ohno-san would have imagined. But if faced with that reality, he might say, “I am happy that you feel good. Now get to work! Practice kaizen continuously to create a TPS-like Just-in-Time system so that the company can survive.”

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