Lean Zombies

This year, 2024, is my 30-year anniversary of my involvement with progressive management, both Toyota Production System and Lean management. Throughout that time I have been both a practitioner and an educator — a practitioner in manufacturing, supply chain management, and higher education, both as a manager and as a professor.

During that time I have been a steady producer of academic papers, articles, books, training courses, blog posts, videos, and LinkedIn posts, as well as graphics that I created (and recently which AI created based on my prompts) to explain ideas, concepts, systems, and improvements. In the words of a colleague: “It boggles my mind how much output you create.” True, but my primary aim is the innovative and educational quality of my output. Another colleague said:

Cheers to you Bob E. For decades you have searched for, interpreted for and shared with the Lean/TPS/OpEx/CI/etc community the concepts and thought leaders in our space. I have agreed with most … questioned some … but without question, what you have regularly ‘put on the table’ (ideas, concepts, examples, case studies, etc) has made me think, self reflect, question and in turn advance how I think as a leader-doer-learner. Cheers to you and how you have contributed and complemented the learnings of this community.

John K.

Overall, my effort had been directed towards education, not money-making, which should be obvious from my style of writing and speaking. Like it or not, I have been doing what I do in service to the Lean community. What has been the effect of my work, or anyone’s work who is similar to mine? It is hard to say, but empirical evidence suggests not as much as one would hope for. While I have known this for a long time, it has never deterred me.

But upon reflection, it seems to be a lost cause for the older generation, Baby Boomers, and perhaps Generation X as well, but perhaps not for the generations that follow. We appear to be at the point where the Lean community just doesn’t care anymore to recognize or correct its problems. Likewise for the top Lean promoters and influencers. They show no leadership. Everyone has found their own comfortable status quo and are unwilling to recognize or correct the big problems. It is clear that the Lean community is either aligned with business leaders (Fake Lean) or feels that there are no practical pathways for improvement.

It is true that most (99%) of top business leaders remain committed to classical management, and they have been and continue to be highly effective at blocking or neutering progressive management. By now, almost everyone realizes that Lean has been reduced to a small suite of popular tools that have been absorbed into classical management and their use is typically circumscribed to lower-level workers.

Where do we go from here? Maybe nowhere. Probably nowhere. Why? Because the approach to “selling” Lean to leaders and practitioners is largely unchanged for the last 35 year, and seems unlikely to change.

Lean Zombies

Lean management may be in the latter stages of its life cycle. Lean professionals may be or become (or have been) kind-of like zombies going through the required mechanical motions to produce incremental gains in business results — enough to keep C-suite leaders satisfied, that is until they decide the expense of Lean professionals is not worth the gains they produce. Under such circumstances, there is not a great need to put much thought into one’s work. Instead, just adapt to the status quo. Worry less about “Lean thinking” and kaizen, and worry more about being held accountable for results.

Nobody can blame Lean professionals. They simply collided with forces that they were unaware of or did not understand, and which I have worked diligently in recent years to illuminate. Having to work for a living requires people to exercise business pragmatism and conform to the status quo, to greater or lesser extent. Perhaps that is the rationale used by top Lean promoters and influencers for not wanting to take on the big problems that Lean management has long faced.

When one looks at all the great management thinkers over the last 100 years — from Taylor, the Gilbreths, to Follett, Mayo, Deming Drucker, Argyris, Kanter, Senge, Schein, etc. — they have all had senior leaders’ attention (and lucrative consulting work) at one point or another. But whatever they may have taught executives has proven to be largely non-transferable from one generation of leaders to the next. All of this great thinking has proven to be largely ephemeral; curiosities that do not have staying-power. Most top business leaders lead the same way that leaders before them led, for generations. Sure, there is some improvement over time, but much less than one would expect given all the empirical evidence that shows the need for significant change, particularly over the last 50 to 60 years.

We need to realize that improvements in management thinking and practice have very limited appeal to top leaders, no matter the time or place. However, improvements in management thinking and practice create enduring legions of lower-level (lower-status) followers. These people, employees and others, clamor for better leadership and management practice. While there is great pull for that, leaders mostly ignore it — unless they are for some reason forced to reckon with it (such as threat of unionization).

Some people say that Lean professionals should start their own business to produce (non-Lean related) products and services to create the Lean businesses that they dream of. Well, the reality is that entrepreneurship is a rare thing. Only about 0.25 to 0.35 percent of the population (250-350 per 100,000 people) start a business. Of those, the vast majority are single owner or home-based businesses in construction trades (carpenters, electricians, plumbers, plasterers, roofers, etc.), landscaping, accounting, training and consulting, and retail. Only about one percent of startups grow to become large businesses. Having been an entrepreneur and having taught entrepreneurship to working professionals, I can tell you that most everyone would rather earn a steady paycheck from an employer than put in the grind of seven-days per week effort that it takes to run a business. So the challenge that Lean professionals should start their own business is not really within the realm of possibility for most.

Given all the longstanding difficulties and compromises, giving up on Lean seems like a wise thing to do. It is certainly much easier to join the classical management bandwagon than to fight against it. And who knows, one day, perhaps soon, the biggest advocates for classical management may discover progressive management — you know, the same way that your great idea is ignored by your boss until the boss thinks of that idea themselves. One thing is for sure, tides turn quickly when top leaders sense something is to their advantage. If that happens, do not get caught unprepared. Continue to hone your progressive management thinking and practice skills as best you can. Learn, improve, and develop know-how. The zombies will come alive someday!


* Credit David Fitzpatrick who wrote the phrase “Lean Zombie” in a DM follow-up to our conversation on 29 February 2024. This post expands on that phrase and our DM conversation.

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