Lean — Survival or Decline

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When we think of Lean management, we probably do not think of it in evolutionary terms. But we should for two reasons. First, evolution takes a prominent place in the thinking of Toyota production system and Toyota’s overall management system — the need to evolve in response to the reality of changing times, changing needs, changing human conditions, and so on. Second, it is useful to think in terms of evolution to help understand what has happened to Lean in the past and what may likely happen to Lean in the future.

Think of Lean as a combination of ideology, culture, and system. Whether it survives depends mostly on the continued existence and growth a population of human beings that keep it alive in ways that are more than just ideas. It must also be kept alive in practice. To do this requires some form of replication. Unlike a human reproduction, replication of Lean occurs two ways:

  • Gaining new followers though various promotion efforts (articles, books, videos, conferences, training, web sites, etc.)
  • The promotion of existing followers in the workplace to higher levels of responsibility

The first method is easy and needs to be done, but the process is slow and unpredictable, and new followers likely have little influence. The second method is more difficult but has much higher impact with respect to influence and replication. This is where Lean suffers the most. We all know many examples where people with exceptional progressive Lean mindset and skills were passed over for promotion in favor of someone less capable but who exhibited personal and business characteristics that more closely matched traditional ways of thinking and doing things. This happened to me three times. The classical manager was promoted over the Lean manager despite the top leadership’s apparent commitment to Lean.

In a large company, a supervisor influences five or ten people. A manager influences 10 to 50 people. A general manager influences a few hundred people. A vice president influences a thousand people. The president influences 10,000 people or more. Promotions in organizations are the mechanism by which ideology, culture, and system are reproduced, in part by the debt owed to one’s boss for awarding the promotion and the subsequent demand for compliance to existing power structures, hierarchies, mindset, and methods. Imagine the hundreds of managers compared to a few Lean people tucked away in the company’s Lean office.

The fundamental problem that Lean faces is shown in the image above:

The reproduction rate of classical management is greater than the reproduction rate of Lean management.

Simply put, classical management is more fertile than Lean management. It reproduces more easily and more quickly. The reproduction rate of classical management vastly exceeds the level of replacement needed to survive, while Lean reproduces at a below-replacement rate which will result in decline.

And if we acknowledge the reality that to most CEOs, businesses is nothing more than properties to be bought and sold for the purpose of pecuniary gain (not customer satisfaction), the ubiquity of classical management virtually assures that Lean businesses will soon be brought back into the classical management fold when ownership or management changes. This process augments the primary mechanism (promotion) so that classical management reproduces at a faster rate than Lean management to assure its survival.

Classical management and the institution of leadership are more formidable challengers to Lean management than most people realize. Lean devotees are an enthusiastic tribe, so much so that they ignore obstacles and facts that easily imperil their vision. Likewise, Lean movement leaders seem to prefer to ignore the truth and carry on as if this problem does not exist or cannot be solved, so everyone should remain optimistic and just keep trying harder.

For sure Lean movement leaders are not happy with the current situation, but they seem to believe that they (and others) will be a lot worse off if they publicly acknowledge the facts of how difficult a problem it is to get leaders to accept Lean management and reproduce at a higher rate than classical management. As such, they are loath to recognize or accept the books shown in the image below. The Lean strategy is to ignore or avoid useful new information in service to helping Lean survive. Instead, it is more likely to accelerate Lean’s decline because valuable time will be lost, and new ideas will not be forthcoming.

4 Books

Please clearly understand that my purpose is less to sell books and much more to be of service to the Lean community to:

  • Solve the mystery that has long plagued progressive management
  • Answer long-standing questions to ease people’s frustrations
  • Deepen our collective understanding of why leaders resist or reject Lean management
  • Inspire people to think of new ideas to try so that we can be more successful

Lean’s survival depends on everyone gaining a clearer understanding of the challenge before time runs out.

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