Lean as Decoration

As many of you have no doubt noticed, Lean is often used by top management as business decoration to appear fashionable or in-step with the times. The values associated with Lean are often missing (e.g. customer-first, developing people), as are the “Respect for People” principle and senior management engagement. Why is that? It is in part because the thought that one does not know something is socially and politically incorrect among senior managers, so the desire to learn something new (Lean values, principles, and practices) is weak or non-existent.

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Illustration by Julia Emiliani

Lean tools added to a culture of arrogance, a self-proclaimed beautiful organization with little or nothing new to learn, yields different outcomes compared to when Lean management is adopted by an organization with a culture of humility, where one has a lot to learn.

A culture of arrogance adopts Lean tools to squeeze more juice from the lemon, rather than to fundamentally improve all processes and develop people – to replace the current management system with a new one.

If, before the start of Lean, you were to ask the question, “What percent of your business processes are good?,” most senior managers would likely say 70 or 80 percent. A more accurate answer is less than 5 percent.

Ask them another question; one that is an elemental, existential management question: “Do you care if you cause pain and suffering to employees?” The answer, in most cases, will be “We don’t cause pain and suffering to employees,” or perhaps even “No, we don’t care” The existence of mountains of process and behavioral waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness assures that management causes pain and suffering to employees every day.

Companies typically use Lean as decoration to make people on the outside (e.g. investors) think that processes are perfect and the reason why financial results are as good as they are. It is a very effective decoration, “Fake Lean,” or what my old sensei used to call “money games.”

But, if you part the curtains, you will often find what is actually going on is a mix of traditional and modern financial engineering. That pleases investors insofar as it reflects better than average financial performance, but it usually does not please customers. If it did, performance would be exceptional instead of only better than average.

If cash is the measure of the worth of an organization, and if cash truly is king, then customers are the raison d’être for adopting Lean management. The culture of humility, where one has a lot to learn, is better able to accept this than the culture of arrogance.

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