Losing Faith in Lean

Losing Faith in Lean 1

Some people are losing or have lost faith in Lean as a construct to produce better leadership and management, or have lost confidence in their ability to produce meaningful change to the existing system of management (classical management) — principally those who have been engaged with Lean for a decade or more. Concurrently, though, lots of people are discovering Lean. That keeps the business of Lean running, but, in time, there is a good chance many or most of them will also lose faith or confidence. Why is this happening?

There are a few different ways that Lean professionals can lose faith in Lean management or confidence in themselves:

  • Lean success stories abound in articles, books, and videos, yet most people’s experience with Lean is more one of great struggle than success. Lean pros keep running into seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Their lived experiences share little resemblance to the endless success stories. Why does this gap exist?

First, understand that Lean is a Western interpretation of Toyota’s management system, and it is not a very good interpretation. Despite that, it is a good enough interpretation for most top leaders to realize that they do not want a new management system. But, they are interested in Lean for utilitarian reasons. They see Lean as useful tools to add to workers’ problem-solving toolbox, to help them solve their working-level problems better. Consequently, most of the success stories are narrow in scope, highlighting teams that have successfully applied some Lean tools. This falls well below the level of change that most Lean pros hope to achieve.

As with any large population, a few top leaders do have interest in changing the system that they know but no longer love. They are the source for wonderful stories of transformation such as Wiremold, Danaher, Virginia Mason, and some others. But, let’s face it, these are unicorns — rare examples of transformed business systems led by unique people who were eager to abandon classical management.

So, Lean professionals lose faith in Lean or confidence because of:

Lean professionals may also lose faith in Lean or confidence because:

  • Bureaucracy limits the scope and magnitude of both technical progress (process improvement) and social progress (people development). Improvement ideas and plans require lengthy management review and approval, taking on cumbersome project-like forms that kill the spirit of rapid improvement and teamwork. And gains that have been achieved may soon become undone for one reason or another. This makes it unusually difficult for Lean professionals to create meaningful change.

Lean professionals loss of faith or confidence leads to:

  • Frequent changes in employment in the hope that one can find a company whose leaders are serious about Lean. After a decade or so, the job-hopping routine becomes tiresome and the family begins to rebel. Most Lean professionals eventually find refuge in non-Lean jobs, but try to apply some of what they learned to help improve the work.

It is unfortunate that the foremost promoters of Lean management do not make current or future Lean professionals aware of the challenges they will face. Neither the Lean Enterprise Institute nor the Lean Enterprise Academy has ever published a Lean Professional’s Handbook. Such a handbook should include chapters that honestly inform readers of the realities of the profession and suggest ideas and plans to help them contend with well-known difficulties. But instead, each person, one by one, learns the hard way, repeating the same mistakes and experiencing the same stress and frustrations as the thousands of people who preceded them. That is not a recipe for success, nor is it respectful of one’s customers.

…employees are offering a very important part of their life to us. If we don’t use their time effectively, we are wasting their lives.

– Eiji Toyoda

Substitute the word “customer” for “employee.” The absence of a candid, fact-based Lean Professional’s Handbook wastes people’s lives.

Lean management as a concept and practice has no answer to the question, “Why do most top leaders resist, reject, or ignore Lean management?” So Lean professionals, from beginner to veteran, typically do as others before them have done and spend their days blind to the challenges inherent to their work. But some Lean pros want to learn the answer to the big existential question and learn what they are up against. So they read my books:

Six Books 2

This too can lead to a loss of faith in Lean or confidence in one’s ability to produce meaningful change:

  • The books present inarguable facts that paint a gloomy, uncomfortably realistic picture that Lean management is unlikely to displace classical management for the foreseeable future. Despite this, the new information contained in the books should stimulate scores of new ideas for disrupting classical management either individually or as a Lean community.

In writing these books, the response I had hoped to elicit was, “Wow. Now that we are aware of these important facts, let’s think of many new and different ways to improve!” — not, “I give up.” Additionally, circumstances could change rather rapidly, necessitating a widespread transition from classical management to Lean management. So, be prepared! After reading these books, people generally fall into three categories:

  1. Those who welcome the information to help them develop new strategies and tactics for interacting with senior leaders to gain greater acceptance for Lean management.
  2. Those who realize the difficult situation they are up against and decide to continue their Lean work but do so in a more cautious way, given the potential dangers they face if they push too hard.
  3. Those who give up and move on to something else, which may or may not be related to continuous improvement.

I have not given up, and neither should you. I answered the long-standing question, “Why do most top leaders resist, reject, or ignore Lean management?” And now I spend a lot of time thinking about the next question: “What to do about it.”

Whether you are a fan of Lean management, a fan of Toyota’s management system, or a fan of both, progressive management thinking and practice cannot die simply because you have lost faith or confidence, for whatever reason. Advancing progressive management is a multi-generational challenge (the Lean Professional’s Handbook would inform you of that). As business, social, political, and environmental circumstances change, the need for progressive management becomes evermore clear. So don’t give up. Instead, develop new ideas and create better plans and processes to experiment with based on the facts that I have provided in the six books.

This is the type of BIG, complex problem that requires more than routine scientific thinking and more than individual effort. It requires teamwork. and it requires kaizen — rapid “trystorming” to achieve “change for the better,” and more likely kaikaku — large-scale reform or rapid, drastic change (i.e., disruption). Problem-solving via the “Moonshine” method, creatively adapting ideas and concepts (not materials) that are close at hand, may also apply.

The day could come where most CEOs have this to say about progressive management: “Why would you manage any other way?”

The stale alternative is to keep doing in the future what everyone has done in the past: Hope for the best based on an antiquated understanding of the facts, which will do little more than occasionally yield a new unicorn. Luck is not a process or a plan.

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