Lean Hypnotized

Lean Hypnotized 2

The Lean community is a small special interest group, an aspirational community, bonded by some key features:

  • Dissatisfaction with the current state
  • Alliance with business pragmatism
  • Belief in the need to continuously improve processes and systems
  • Expression of authenticity
  • Expression of personal identity

The first three items reflect the mind, the last two reflect the heart; i.e. personal desires and self-expression. Together the heart and mind coalesce into a culture that is both deeply supportive and very protective of Lean. As such, Lean becomes more than a management system, it becomes people’s identity. Lean becomes a form of self expression at work, on social media, and at home. It can even become a form of identity politics, particularly when defending Lean against its critics.

The result of that is the creation of a culture that subtly or not places requirements on its members such as following certain tacit and explicit behaviors, rules, and practices to gain or retain good standing in the community. In short, one must conform to group norms and sometimes arbitrary practices to gain status as an accepted member. Additionally, one must make contributions to the group’s goals (e.g., promote Lean and share successes) and fulfill obligations when needed to avoid social disapproval (i.e., the Lean culture’s subjective justice system).

Accepting Lean is, itself, a status-based decision because it confers exclusive knowledge of things like waste, Lean tools, continuous improvement, respect for people, progressive management, and Japanese words and phrases — all of which are unknown to non-Lean communities or disregarded by them as being of no consequence. Lean people see and feel what others do not see and feel. This imparts a distinctiveness that engenders pride, virtue, righteousness, and morality.

This, along with the threat of social disapproval and the existence of status within the Lean community, sets the stage for imitating, if not emulating, the thinking, behaviors, and practices of those higher in status. This requires that the opposite must also occur: distancing oneself from those who are lower in status. Both have the result of affirming shared the views and values of sameness and differences, and generates the sought after benefit of validation by other members.

Under such conditions, status claims, whether they are intended or not, are omnipresent in physical and virtual social interaction. The resulting comparisons of opinion and accomplishment lead to disputes and conflict. Taken at face value, as is typically the case, disputes and conflict are easily viewed as negative, not as necessary and positive forces and ideas for improvement.

Lean Identity

When Lean becomes part of one’s identity, nearly everything becomes personal and personalized. People get defensive, and in the milieu of status-seeking Lean splinters into competing in-groups and out-groups. The in-groups become bound by a philosophy of anything that supports Lean is good, anything that or questions, conflicts, or detracts from Lean is bad. The out-groups, being smaller and splintered subcultures, are relegated to lower status and thus permanently disadvantaged. This situation leads to a view held by outsiders and critics that the Lean movement lacks seriousness because it is unwilling to confront its own limitations and faults.

Given these circumstances, support for Lean by in-groups is more deeply informed by identity, status, confirmation bias than is the case for out-groups who are more willing to ask questions. This focuses one’s attention on high-status authorities and induces greater readiness to respond to their suggestions and direction, while at the same time reducing awareness of lower status groups. This condition is loosely akin to hypnosis, which as a therapy can be beneficial, but as a state of being it is detrimental to progress.

Recall that Lean professionals have an alliance with business pragmatism, and thus with business itself. That means most Lean professionals desire to personally succeed within the constraints of business (i.e., existing leadership routines and classical management) and contribute to the success of the company. Consequently, they will typically prioritize being effective over what is ideal. This is a baseline feature of the business social group which Lean professionals also belong to and have no real choice but to adopt.

Working within “the system” to significantly change powerful, long-established institutions does not have a great track record. Generally, the harder one tries to change established institutions and systems, the less likely they will advance to the level where they can actually achieve that outcome. They will become reluctant to criticize those who are higher in status in the company and succumb to the status quo.

Lean management does not conform to the logic of classical management, so it must be reframed. That is unlikely to happen until such time as the hypnotic spell is broken.

* Credit David Fitzpatrick who uttered the phrase “Lean Hypnotized” in our conversation on 29 February 2024. This post expands on that phrase and our conversation.

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