Lean’s Culture War

Culture War

What is a culture war? “A culture war is a cultural conflict between social groups and the struggle for dominance of their values, beliefs, and practices.” If you have paid close attention over the past twenty years, you may have noticed some actions that promulgated a bit of conflict within the Lean community. I assume it is not intentional. But the effect on Lean practitioners has been two-fold: 1. Cultural conflict for dominance between Lean values, beliefs, and practices and Toyota values, beliefs, and practices, and 2. Divide people who broadly share the same goals and thus diminish the effectiveness of both.

The first skirmish goes back many years, where kaizen (specifically, Toyota’s industrial engineering-based kaizen method) was seen as inadequate for bringing about leadership and organizational transformation — despite the fact that the best examples of leadership and organizational transformation (including Toyota) were the result of industrial engineering-based kaizen practiced continuously (see example here). This argument, weak as it is, has been highly effective at playing to people’s instinctive love of tools and turning legions of followers’ attention away from industrial engineering towards value stream maps, gemba walks, A3 reports, coaching, kata, and so on to produce Lean success (all are products of kaizen, by the way). No doubt these tools have been, and remain, big moneymakers for those who lacked the knowledge and ability lead kaizens for the purpose of creating continuous flows of material and information. But the larger problem is the time lost, the learning lost, the productivity lost, the leadership engagement lost, and the opportunity lost due to misleading people about the power of industrial engineering-based kaizen.

The second skirmish also goes back many years. It pertains to success stories. It seems to be in Lean’s best long-term interest to focus on examples of successful Lean efforts — from Lean transformation, to a kanban system for hospital supplies, to visual boards, to showcasing the latest heroic Lean leader. Within those successes are many failures, of course. There is nothing wrong with that; it is how we learn and improve. Yet there are many failures outside those successes that some people strongly prefer to not talk about or talk about only superficially and infrequently. For example, the glut of organizations that added Lean tools (often incorrectly) to classical management (leaving the industrial engineering part behind), those that could not engage senior leaders, those that abandoned Lean efforts, those where changes in top leadership resulted in a rapid return to classical management, or cases where there has been lots of improvement yet no evidence of improved material and information flow. And, they prefer, even more strongly, to not view these as problems that need to be solved — deeply interesting and critically important problems that must be solved for Lean to flourish. As a result, it is seen as best to ignore these problems, ignore the people who have suffered from these problems both professionally and personally, ignore any progress that has been made in solving these problems, and ignore trying out potential countermeasures that might succeed in correcting these problems. Thus, there is a denial of reality (a mindset of “make believe”) among those who speak about the importance of “grasping the situation” and engaging in problem solving (PDSA) to close the gap between what is happening and what should be happening — but apparently only for certain less difficult or less embarrassing problems. Some people really want to know what is going on yet others really do not. The values, beliefs, and practices between the two could not be more different.

The third skirmish is more recent. It began in 2016 with an effort to blame Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford for Lean’s many woes (see my rebuttal here). Blaming the deceased by those faithful to “no blame” for the living has popped up here and there since then, but it came to the forefront again in recent months — apparently because all is not well in Lean-land and hence the need to identify a scapegoat. The dismissal of the work by Taylor et al. and the effort to distance Lean management from Scientific Management shows an unfortunate ignorance of the facts and a willingness to disregard progressive management history that significantly aided the development of both TPS and Toyota’s overall management system — i.e., the application of the scientific method and industrial engineering to management. I have comprehensively knocked down that absurd argument (here and here) by establishing the facts and to respect and appreciate our past innovators in management thinking and practice, as well as to understand the history of Scientific Management, which is uncomfortably similar to TPS and Lean management, so that we can together learn and improve. Many people say “Lean is about learning.” If true, then “go see” what is contained the past record of progressive management, “show respect” to our forebears, and “ask why” Lean is not flourishing in companies as was predicted rather than blaming a dead person.

The fourth skirmish, also recent, is invoking The Toyota Way’s “Respect for People” principle to shut down disagreements under the belief that disagreement is disrespectful. In particular, it is used by those who present and idea or opinion that is easily shown to be factually incorrect. “Respect for People” is then used as a shield to both defend themselves (i.e. it is disrespectful to challenge the argument) and to belittle and berate those who dare to challenge them (invariably in the form of an ad hominem attack). For example, the disagreements over who is responsible for separating planning from execution (a division of labor, nothing new there), micromanagement, centralized control, etc. These were not invented by any one person, and certainly not in the last 150 years. They are features of ancient hierarchical institutions: the monarchy, the military, and the church, after which business leadership and organization is modeled. These are powerful institutions whose traditions prevail today and which effortlessly sweep aside Scientific Management, TPS, Lean, and other forms of progressive management such as Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (see here, here, and here).

I cannot say if the Lean culture war is purposeful or not. It seems more like people doing what people often do — seek to gain an advantage over others. In other words, it is a social science problem of status-seeking, which appears to have resulted in these outcomes:

  • Make Lean management look better in absolute and comparative terms
  • Generate loyalty to “Lean” as constructed by James Womack and Daniel Jones
  • Generate sales of Lean products and services
  • Not much “change for the better” despite an enormous effort (“There aren’t enough lean practitioners nor successful Lean transformations” — James Womack, 11 April 2019)

How does a culture war end? Probably when it is no longer effective at serving its purposes.

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