Lean Fighting Blind

There are people in the Lean community who have enormous credibility when it comes to assessing the state of Lean management in corporations and other organizations. They include Mark DeLuzio, Art Byrne, Jean Cunningham, Jim Womack, Dan, Jones, Jeff Liker, and various others. Taken together, these people have seen a large number of companies in many different countries over the last 30 years. So when they say that few companies have undergone Lean transformation — let’s define it as achieving noteworthy levels of material and information flow, culture change, and related basic attributes — that means something. Even though their analysis is unscientific, their informed observations are sure to be approximately correct.

The Lean community must face the facts and come to a reckoning of what the movement has been able to accomplish since 1988. It is true that many good things have happened over the years. We have some wonderful examples of Lean transformation. We know what it means to be an effective Lean leader. Knowledge of Lean management, methods, and tools has been widely disseminated through books, training, conferences, web sites, and other means. But, let’s stop congratulating ourselves. We must acknowledge the the situation and attend to its problems. For example, there is wide variation in understanding that people have about Lean, ranging from severe misunderstanding to high fidelity understanding of the purpose and intent of TPS from the 1970s through today. Progress has been slower and much less thorough than expected. And we remain reliant on unicorns — the rare examples of leaders and companies that have made substantial Lean progress — to sustain our interest, energy, and efforts. That will not suffice in the long run.

It is worth noting that success is so rare that some (many?) Lean consultant spin disastrous client engagements into great success stories on their web sites. Apparently they hope prospective customers will not know about the disaster and will not check to find out what actually happened. Marketing is a funny thing, straddling the boundaries between truth, hype, falsehood. We all understand the need to generate sales, but the level of intellectual dishonesty in Lean world is both alarming and excessive.

We must acknowledge this fact: Despite its superior attributes, Lean management been unable to displace classical management. Perhaps we have been impatient and have not given the process enough time to have a greater effect. Perhaps the methods for promoting Lean management have been inadequate. Perhaps marketing was weak and more focused on strengthening the commitment of those who are already committed to Lean. Or, perhaps, efforts to advance Lean have been made without ever truly understanding who opposes it and why they oppose it.

fight2In my view, Lean people have been fighting a courageous battle with an adversary that they do not know or understand. They are fighting blind against a far more skilled and well-equipped adversary, and therefore have no hope of winning. When they do win it is by luck, not design. The Lean movement cannot survive on luck. The devoted will continue to carry the Lean flag and double- or triple-down on doing more of what has been done in the past. However, that is unlikely to lead to any greater success in the future than what has been achieved in the past. The battle will forever be uphill — steeply uphill — if nothing changes.

The adversary that Lean people face is classical management and the institution of business leadership. Lean people do not know enough about these to fight against them effectively, let alone win. They do not recognize the strength and continuing vitality of classical management and the many ways it retards the advancement of Lean management. They are fighting against traditions established centuries ago; traditions that are beloved by those in charge, from one generation to the next.

About 10 years ago, I started a research project to deeply understand classical management and institution of business leadership (meaning, how CEOs think and what they do). My findings are summarized in The Triumph of Classical Management Over Lean Management: How Tradition Prevails and What to Do About It. It is a 300-page book that costs only $20. I am certain you will find that its value far exceeds the price. The book will be revelatory, I can assure you. As one reader said: “Your book is like opening oysters, pearls of wisdom everywhere.” It book will satisfy much-needed intellectual enrichment and hopefully ignite widespread discussion on how Lean should be advanced in the future.

While learning about classical management and institution of business leadership, I’d also like you to think about the future of Lean management. In my view, the aim of Lean management has always been too low. The old Lean challenge was to improve quality and productivity, reduce costs, corporate wealth creation, give purpose to one’s work, develop people, etc. We must aim much higher. Think of Lean’s ultimate benefit to mankind is to alleviate human suffering that exists at work (by improving the co-dependent practices of leadership and management in organizations) and in life (by eliminating the waste that threatens both the earth and human existence).

People well-trained and well-educated in Lean are never satisfied. They know improvement is never-ending and that they can always do better. Yet despite all the effort made over the last 30 years to improve processes and to create Lean corporate cultures, there is surprisingly little to show for it. Lean people cannot be satisfied with that. Aiming higher means we must enlarge the vision of Lean management and challenge business leaders to: 1) Create workplaces that improve human physical and mental health so people leave work every day in better health than when they arrived and 2) Conduct economic activity in ways that improve the earth’s health and wellness. This is what Lean management was made for.

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