Lean Management Seen as Corruption

I sometimes joke with people and say: “Thirty years ago, 1 percent of CEOs were interested in Lean transformation. Thirty years later, 0.1 percent of CEOs are interested in Lean transformation.” In humor there is truth — declining demand for Lean transformation, despite our many and varied efforts for more than a generation.

Those of you who have followed my work know that I have spent many years working to understand why CEOs resist or reject Lean management, and, relatedly, why interest in Lean management among CEOs has declined over the decades (click here to learn more). In this post, I’ll briefly examine yet another aspect that gets no attention, but it should.


Today, we understand the word “corruption” to mean actions that are dishonest or fraudulent. Etymologically, however, the word “corruption” means (in Middle English) to “break,” “debase,” “alter” (in an unfavorable way), or “destroy.” Classical management, as it is understood by generations of top business leaders for more than 200 years, represents a preexisting normative order — one which most CEOs in modern times are quite happy with. Progressive management in general, and Lean management in particular, advocates for a type of leadership and management reconstruction, one that breaks, debases, alters, or destroys classical management. Therefore, Lean management represents corruption of the much-loved classical management. In addition, Lean management corrupts the preexisting social hierarchy and political order that leaders view as necessary for personal and business success.

To suggest to CEOs that Lean management is necessary — for any reason — generates a personal insult and threatens corruption of their hard-won business worldview. That is why those people who push Lean too hard in their organization often face unpleasant consequences. Furthermore, bids to advance Lean management by those lower in the hierarchy is inherently corrupt because they are lower in status.

Learning Lean management is a gain in status for lower-level salaried professional employees (see “The Transformation of Lean: A Social Theory of the Lean Movement“). But it is the opposite for CEOs: Lean management big decline in status. If this were not true, then there would be nothing to joke about. Instead we would say: “Thirty years ago, 1 percent of CEOs were interested in Lean Transformation. Thirty years later, 10 percent of CEOs are interested in Lean transformation.” There would be increasing demand for Lean transformation. What Lean promoters and practitioners see as beneficial and necessary, most CEOs see as corruption of the existing order, and they will fight to prevent corruption of classical management from taking place.

Lean itself personifies the corruption of business and those who lead it. The purity, value, and traditions of classical management and leadership are corrupted by Lean management. Lean management brazenly usurps the traditional order. IMPORTANTLY, the facts that Lean management expose restricts CEOs freedom to think and do as they please. Thwarting Lean — whether by controlling it (resisting via Fake Lean) or ignoring it (rejecting) — then becomes a way for CEOs to assert their freedom to think and so as they please and maintain the preexisting normative order.

In my view, Lean promoters and practitioners consistently fail to recognize the reality of the situation and its severity — just as Scientific Management promoters and practitioners did 100 years ago. The most likely scenario is that Lean movement leaders, Lean promoters, and Lean practitioners will continue to talk about — just talk about — the problem without carefully studying the work that has been done at very deep levels to understand the “current state” of leadership, thereby forgoing opportunities for improvement. The grand plan may be simply to service the few leaders interested in Lean Transformation and the many leaders interested in Fake Lean and take that to be good enough for however long it lasts. So much for problem-solving.

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