Lean’s Promise Broken

The term “Lean” has been with us for nearly 30 years. We proponents of Lean tell others that Lean management is superior to conventional management in every way – better in every business metric and better for employees, suppliers, customers, investors, communities, and even for competitors because it helps them avoid complacency.

The benefits of Lean have been realized in several organizations and well-documented. We point to these examples to illustrate the benefits and as evidence of how “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” combine to create great organizations that people love to work in.

Yet, despite our efforts to sell Lean management, success remains highly dependent on the ability of the top leaders of an organization to practice and understand it. This is something that is largely out of our control. As a result, experience to-date clearly informs us that Fake Lean is far more prevalent than Real Lean. We can assign responsibility for the existence of Fake Lean to top leaders all we want, but stakeholders, especially employees, don’t care about that. All they care about is that they are not seeing the much ballyhooed benefits of Lean management. And, as bosses come and go, employees are far more likely to blame Lean for problems they experienced rather than their bosses or Taiicho Ohno.

But, it may be worse than we realize. Many people in the baby-boomer generation have suffered layoffs or other workplace problems due to Lean. They have been injured by Lean, not helped by it. And their children, the next generation, know that either explicitly or implicitly. If something does not help, then why use it or even think about it?

If the younger generation knows Lean mostly in a negative context, then that helps explain the allure of start-up companies. These companies do not have the entrenched bad processes, bad leadership, and bad daily management habits that signal the need for Lean transformation. Young people would rather work at Google than General Motors.

Notably, the old, established industrial businesses have been experiencing high turnover among the younger generation because these dinosaur companies do not meet their expectations for an empowering and respectful workplace. The leaders of such organizations failed to realize, long ago, how Lean management could have helped satisfy those future (now present) needs. Instead, they misunderstood Lean and used it incorrectly to satisfy short-term financial needs (stock price), for negative cost-cutting and layoffs, and for stultifying conformance to unchanging standards. And, as this unfolded over two decades, the leading Lean advocates were largely silent.

The younger generation is making sensible, pragmatic choices in their employment decisions.

As advocates of Lean, we can be accused of over-promising and under-delivering, and we therefore have a steep uphill challenge to correct negative opinions. It will be a tough sell to get the next generation to take up the challenge of embracing Lean and moving it forward. Yet, we must try, because we know in our hearts that Lean management, and especially kaizen, is the kind of fun that young people want to have in the workplace. And kaizen gives them the opportunity to make meaningful contributions every day.

What has been broken must be repaired. For Lean to become something more than a niche management practice, it has to prove itself as beneficial to ever-larger numbers of people and deliver on its promise to make work easier and stakeholders more, not less, prosperous.

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