Lean’s Crumbling Foundation

Crumbling foundation

The intellectual foundation of Lean management was built decades ago at a time when business reigned supreme. It was an engrossing mania. Celebrity CEOs, more charismatic than competent, fed everyone a steady diet of hype and spin. The focus was on quarterly earnings, growth, and, of course, the stock price. Appearances mattered more than the reality of ubiquitous shoddy management, to sustain and elevate the stock price. Consumption mattered more than production. In this environment, the bricks that comprised Lean’s foundation were competition, continuous improvement, cost reduction, productivity, and wealth creation. In a nutshell, do good things for the company and hope that good things happen to customers. We all bought into that. It seemed right. Yet in most cases the company and its leaders benefited from Lean far more than its customers (or employees and suppliers). COVID-19, in just a few weeks, has dealt a death blow to many businesses and has shrunk major industries, such as air travel, by 90 percent. The business foundation that Lean was built on is no longer relevant.

As a result of the pandemic and the long wait for a vaccine, there is the likelihood that people’s buying habits, needs, interests, and perceptions about many things will change substantially in the short- and mid-term, and perhaps long-term as well. The pandemic has quickly taught us what matters most. Not consumerism, but survival. Not luxury, but basic needs. Not distant travel, but appreciation of neighbors, town, and local history and culture. Business comes second, not first. People come first.

Lean’s must now be rebuilt on a human foundation: the sanctity of humanity and the planet. People, community, and society. Consumption based on needs, not wants. Localized and regionalized production, adapted to local tastes and needs, and the elimination of wasteful and environmentally hazardous packaging. Re-shoring critical products (PPE, pharmaceuticals, myriad parts) and services. Work online, where possible, instead of burning 200 or 300 gallons of gasoline each year commuting to work, generating 4000 to 6000 pounds of CO2.

People will want quality and durability. Quality clothing that lasts, not cheap fast-fashion clothing. People are no longer interested in a new phone every year or two. People want a simpler, less chaotic life, at home, work, and politically. Bring back the basic, inexpensive car, with roll-down windows, side vents, AM-FM radio, and no air conditioning. People want fixed prices, not Amazon’s dizzying variable prices. People want their needs met, instead of meeting the needs of business — profit maximization and double-digit year-over-year growth. Business must view customers as human beings, not as wallets to pry open. People want to pay for the product or service, but less all the wasteful expensive advertising across every media platform. That, alone, would instantaneously produce a 20 to 30 percent price reduction. Having finally learned a valuable lesson from COVID-19, people will used the money saved for the inevitable rainy day.


Lean management’s new intellectual foundation comes in two parts. The first recognizes the failures of the past and the many ways in which pre-pandemic methods were deficient. Specifically, Lean people should understand that the powerful forces that resisted Lean in the past will surely resist Lean in the future. The post-pandemic, bedrock Lean foundation is learning the visible and invisible forces that prevent needed progress. Lean people must first know what they are up against before they can wage a credible contest that relies on expertise rather than luck. Without such knowledge they are likely doomed to fail again. There is no point trying to promote Lean management without first obtaining a wealth of new knowledge.

The second part Lean management’s new intellectual foundation, building upon the bedrock foundation, may be something like: cooperation (vs. competition), ideas (vs. continuous improvement), flow (vs. cost reduction), society (vs. productivity), contentment (vs. wealth creation). What do these mean?

  1. Cooperation – Recognize problems and make changes.
  2. Ideas – Develop and try out all ideas
  3. Flow – Create and sustain flows of material and information
  4. Society – Understand and respond to people’s needs
  5. Contentment – Satisfaction, every day, knowing that your work has focus and meaning, and that it produces a wide range of beneficial results

In a nutshell, do good things for people (employees, suppliers, customers, communities) knowing that good things will happen to the company and its investors.

Do items 1-4 with a calm sense of urgency, without delay, with curiosity and helpful determination. Working at a steady human pace, doing the work as it should be done, finally, versus endless work-arounds and firefighting. Build people, products, and services for the long haul, not destroy people for the short-term benefit of the corporation and to add to the already prodigious wealth its top leaders (“do as your told,” layoffs, etc.). Share the financial surplus with the workers who earn their fair share. Lean can be the pathway to a moral capitalism.

People still want better leadership and management — but only those leaders and managers who put followers first and manage by facts, not by fictions. It’s not about leaders anymore. It’s about developing skills as a craftsman would; becoming a competent and capable steward of intelligent and creative human beings and the earth’s resources. It’s not about self-aggrandizement, being rich, or being famous. It’s about understanding what matters most. It’s about being human, not a boss. Followers must demand better leaders, they must follow the better leaders, and they must unfollow all others (credit Emiel van Est).

COVID-19 brings clarity to many things, including the need for Lean to adapt to changing circumstances. It cannot continue to resonate solely on a sterile technical level, whose appeal is limited mostly to salaried professional staff. It must resonate on a human emotional level as well, and it must engage workers and CEOs alike. It must be easy for all to comprehended as a method for humanizing business and making continuous positive contributions to society.

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