Lean Must Learn From Black Lives Matter

In a recent blog post, “Dr. Emiliani’s No’s for Lean,” I challenged people to solve the problem, in the words of Gregg Miner (Vice President Enterprise Excellence at Trane Technologies), of “how to make 100% of CEOs Lean zealots.” This is next problem now that the prior problem, why CEO resist or reject Lean management, has been solved. To my knowledge, nobody rose to challenge. So, I will offer some help to those who are still interested in solving this problem because of its great importance. The following pathway to a solution assumes that Lean movement and its leaders want more than just a few percent of CEOs to embrace Lean management and Lean transformation. That assumption may well be flawed, as explained below.


Business is a social science and change in business — leadership and management — is a social science problem. Society has many social problems that must be recognized and corrected. Too often, recognition in the form of increased public awareness is not followed by correction, and so things soon return to business as usual. But not always. Let’s look at how Black Lives Matter has been a major force in propelling rapid changes in society and public opinion. Black Lives Matter helped expose brutality and racism and organize peaceful protests around these specific chronic problems. As ever-more evidence of brutality appeared, mainly through videos, peaceful protests grew along with the number of protesters. The result, as the above image shows, was a gradual and then sudden increase in support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the brutality and racism which it seeks to end.

The formula for generating and expanding public opinion seems to be:

  • Incontestable evidence of harm to humans
  • Popular discontent catalyzed by facts
  • High levels of human engagement that is newsworthy across all media platforms for an extended period of time
  • A significant event that crystallizes the problem in ways that the public can easily comprehend

The Lean movement has none of these features. As a result, Lean management has been, and continues to be, in the shadows in terms of public opinion. In the book Irrational Institutions: Business, Its Leaders, and The Lean Movement, I said (page 68): “Importantly, the Lean movement has been unable to convince the public at-large (society) of the merits of Lean management as a replacement for classical management, or the need for changes to the institutions of business and leadership…” My view is that Lean will be nothing more than it has been if it remains narrowly focused on the business community and continues to advocate from a position of weakness and inferiority. The Lean movement has to broaden its horizons and gain the support of the public at-large.

If the Lean movement hopes to do better than achieving a steady state (over a 30 year period) of, at most, five percent of CEOs who embrace Lean management and lead a Lean transformation, then it needs to do something different. Its work must move into the realm of bigger goals and stronger actions that gain the support of society at-large. To-date, Lean movement leaders have merely shown Lean management to be better for business, but not how classical management worse for people. The argument that “classical management is bad, Lean management is better” does not win over society, and so CEOs feel no pressure to change how they lead and manage organizations. The harm done to people by classical management and associated leadership routines is not automatically apparent to people. It has to be made apparent to them.

Recognizing the terrible brutality that George Floyd endured and for which he paid the ultimate price, I say the following with the utmost reverence for Mr. Floyd and his family, the Black community, and out of my concern for human progress: The economic, social, political, historical, philosophical, business, legal, and spiritual preconceptions of classical management are like a knee on the neck of employees, society, and the planet. Like systemic racism, systemic classical management prevents human progress. The way to advance Lean management is by focusing on the harms caused by classical management. Personal pain and suffering need to be made tangible and incontestable, and brought to life through peaceful protests. Through a cumulative effect, a turning point may be reached sooner than we imagine.

Every day the leaders of organizations make the case for Lean management in the zero-sum ways in which people (non-executive employees, suppliers, customers, investors, and communities) are treated. Continuously chaotic, high-stress work environments are bad for human health and results in chronic illnesses (see Lean is Not Mean, Lessons 66, 67, and 68). Layoffs, a celebrated feature of classical management, generate a variety of public health problems — family strife and violence (divorce, spouse or child abuse), anger, hopelessness, stress, pain, anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol addiction, obesity, and suicide. Suppliers are squeezed on prices. Customers endure high prices or poor quality. Returns to investors are lower when employees are disengaged from their work. And communities struggle to deal with the aftereffects of long-term unemployment.

Classical management is the archetypal example of good people trapped in bad system. It is a violent institution resting on archaic economic grounds that diminish human interests and slowly but methodically imposes its pain on humanity. The leaders of organizations are extremely effective at resisting change and ensuring lines of successors that think and do likewise. Based on the belief that high status makes one superior to others, the low status of non-executive employees produces varied forms of systemic oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. Yet society protects the wrong-doing and tolerates bad behaviors because of the high status granted to business and its leaders. Changes in business and leadership thinking and practices can only come from social activism. The focus must be on how classical management is worse for people, society, and the planet. The old intellectual foundation on which Lean was built (wealth creation) will not gain the necessary public support. The Lean movement must establish and work from a new human intellectual foundation. To lead is to serve others, not be served by others.

The Lean movement can choose to act or maintain the status quo. It can wait for CEOs to “come around” to Lean management. It can wait for generational change to recognize the beauty and benefits of Lean management. It can wait for business schools to teach Lean management to future leaders. The wait will be very long because none of these are likely to happen. Or, the Lean movement can take action on a broader scale. If the choice is status quo, then you will know for certain that Lean is nothing more than a business, like any other, in pursuit of narrow self-interest, having no higher purpose, and no desire to gain more than a few percent of CEOs who, at any one time, embrace Lean management and Lean transformation. The central focus will be the fight over market share, not growth.

Sign the petition to end classical management.

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