Lean Groupies

Lean Groupies

When you love something too much it can prevent you from seeing problems that you need to see. Love is blind. Many people are so in love with Lean that they are essentially “Lean groupies,” which I define as:

Excessively devoted fans of Lean celebrities who intently and uncritically follow their words and work and heap praise on them to gain their attention and affection.

The folks whom Lean groupies admire, as well as devotion to Lean itself, rigidly defend Lean against intrusion of anything that could tarnish the luster of Lean or its celebrities. This is commendable from the perspective of those who are defended, but does that really help advance the cause of progressive management?

The defense of Lean and its celebrity leaders is rooted in stories and storytelling. Storytelling, the art of delivering convincing stories, can become a kind of weapon for or against progress. When storytelling favors progress, it will over-value certain people or events and under-value other people or events. When storytelling disfavors progress or enlightenment, it will focus on emotions, exploit confirmation bias, and deliver counterarguments seem to be sound but are in fact deeply flawed.

I have had many encounters with Lean groupies and their groupthink over the years, and it has not been a pleasant experience. They strongly dislike my analytical studies of Lean management and my examination of Lean celebrities’ errors of omission and commission. Somehow, an accurate accounting of the past is seen not as helpful, but as transgressing status boundaries and an ad hominem attack. Instead, I see it plainly as a foundation for the prudent scientific thinking that is needed to solve current and future problems.

Both the Lean celebrities and their groupies also have an aversion to the top leaders’ counterarguments against Lean that I have brought to light. They find these works about classical management so terribly troubling that they do not even acknowledge their existence. Thus, the Lean celebrities fail to view the information as a source of learning, to improve Lean itself, and to better market Lean management.

Despite their heavy protestations and desire to avert their eyes, the test of time is proving I am right and that the Lean celebrities and Lean groupies are wrong.

Will any of this matter? It might matter in the sense that Lean will continue to exist in some form or another, which is likely better for the business of Lean than Lean itself. But, it might not matter in the sense that bigger social, economic, political, and environmental trends might force leaders to move towards forms of progressive management that are more TPS-like (survival- and waste-focused) than Lean-like (consumerism- and value-focused).

We are living in a time that in several aspects closely mirrors the aftermath of the Gilded Age, wherein the antidote to social, economic, political, and environmental problems (stagnation) was the Progressive Era, including Scientific Management (of which there is much misunderstanding among Lean celebrities and Lean groupies). As I said in 2016, the timing for Lean to arrive center stage in 1988 was way off, given that it was soon after the start, in 1979, of the Second Gilded Age.

Classical management has had a very long run. It was disturbed in the early 20th century by Scientific Management, but it was quickly subsumed and incapacitated by leaders devoted to classical management. Despite that, the people associated with Scientific Management were able to get many of their ideas into federal government policy. Lean management was also quickly subsumed and incapacitated by leaders devoted to classical management, and none of its ideas have made into federal government policy.

Nevertheless, some of the people highest in status are beginning to realize that policy corrections are needed (it is their own interest to do so). But can enough of them be convinced to support policy corrections on a scope and scale similar to what was achieved in the Progressive Era — including an heir to Scientific Management? Maybe not.

Artificial intelligence will likely put a lot of the professional class — including Lean groupies — out of a job or into lower paying, lower status jobs just as it did to manufacturing workers over the last 50 years. The higher status educated class — the so-called “knowledge workers” (as if manufacturing work does not require knowledge 🤦‍♂️) — will not like losing ground. Unlike manufacturing workers, they might revolt because they have more to lose and further to fall.

A crisis can be averted by instituting progressive social, economic, political, and environmental policies now. But, as is typically the case, such action will not be forthcoming until after calamity begins. The problems are well known, and growing, but when they will fully blossom is unknown. When it does, it will be progressive management’s big chance to gain a much larger foothold. That is an important new opportunity because technology will never be the sole solution to humanity’s problems.

Before the opportunity does arise, Lean world needs to do some work to prepare, learn from its own history of mistakes (see here, here, and here), and the mistakes made by the promoters of Scientific Management before them. They cannot keep doing the same thing and hope to succeed. Humility is always cited as a characteristic of great leadership. Lean celebrities and Lean groupies will have to display some of that if they want a second chance to succeed.

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