To both economists and top business leaders, a management system is not a determinant of business (financial) success. As much as we would like them to be wrong, they are right. It does not matter if the system is classical management, Lean management, a mash-up of the two, with or without six sigma, or anything else that could be added or subtracted. Lean professionals must accept that fact without equivocation.
In the late 1930s, the raison d’etre for Just-in-Time was both make-to-order (vs. make to stock) and to reduce the space and costs of holding inventories for a machine (automobile) that required thousands of parts. That idea, plus jidoka, led to the creation of the Toyota Production System (TPS) and The Toyota Way (TW), a buyers’ market oriented management system that resulted in numerous other benefits to Toyota’s customers, the company, and other stakeholders.
In the late 1980s the raison d’etre for Lean management was the same as TPS: lower costs, higher quality, shorter lead-times, increased market share, growth in sales and profits, team member engagement, etc., based on the ideas of “customer-first” and the need to understand the work. Over time, the raison d’etre for Lean management changed. Lean turned into a philosophical touchstone — a standard to judge or measure the value or quality of human relations, particularly “Respect for People” — and how to improve that in the workplace.
The transformation from industrial engineering-based analysis of work to eliminate waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness to a condensation of people skills characteristic of The Toyota Way (e.g., respect, developing people, coaching, etc.) produced a romanticized version of Lean that is largely unrecognizable from its origin as a generic term for TPS. The reductionism that took place, and continues to take place, is a corrupting development that obscures the fundamental teachings of Taiichi Ohno et al.
Lean devolved from its original multivariate form to univariate form; the deconstruction of a socio-technical form of progressive management to the narrowly specified preferred social form of being. Included with that is well-meaning but amorphous learning that is largely detached from the need to produce business results that are detectable in financial statements and in employee engagement and satisfaction surveys. This populist form of Lean, Neolean, forcefully disables critical thinking, commonly seeing it as a virulent form of disrespect.
What will that evolve into next? Will it become even less useful — more ignorable by economists and top business leaders — or will it come around full circle to its roots, still to be ignored by economists and top business leaders? If Lean does come full circle, are lower costs, higher quality, shorter lead-times, increased market share, growth in sales and profits, employee engagement, etc., what is needed in 2024 and beyond compared to 1988 or 1973? These seem to be among the fundamental needs of almost any business, but, as we have learned the hard way, a management system is not a determinant of business (financial) success.
Let’s assume the time has passed for Lean management in both its original (1988) form and its deconstructed (2024) populist form, while Toyota keeps on practicing (evolving) TPS/TW to satisfy its own business needs. We must then ask the question, “What is progressive management good for today and in the future?” What is its raison d’etre? The time seems to have come for a change in focus, from “good for business” to “good for humanity.”
Instead of “selling” progressive management as the omnibus solution to all business problems and hoping that a few top leaders “get the message” each year, progressive management could become much more focused to address clear and present needs — notwithstanding the continuing resistance and tone-deafness of most top business and political leaders (but that could change suddenly).
- Business always has unwanted problems. The next iteration of progressive management could be positioned as an effective way to reduce the incidence and severity of problems — only some of which are countered by effective problem-solving at lower levels of the organizations. There is a significant parallel need for scientific problem-solving at mid- and high-levels of the organization as well because these problems can to voraciously consume resources (labor, time, money, etc.). Neither TPS/TW nor Lean management have been properly recognized by economists or top business leaders as having this practical feature. So maybe it is time to formally decouple effective problem-solving at all levels from Lean and place much greater emphasis on that in relation to the needs listed below.
- Younger generations of employees are not interested in repeating the negative work experiences of their parents, be it the daily firefighting, disrespect, sociopathic managers and leaders, sudden employment termination, arbitrary changes in workplace policies and rules, overburden by metrics and KPIs, overloaded with projects, doing busy work, endless discussion with no decision, etc. Younger generations want deeper engagement, more stability, and less stress and anxiety. They are generally more strongly attuned to ensuring their physical and mental health and well-being than either their parents or most past and current leaders. The younger generations rightly recognize that business-as-usual will continue to cause illness and, over the long term, chronic disease and reduced lifespan.
- As changing climate has ever-greater impacts on ecosystems and communities, there is a fast-growing need to harmonize economic activity with resources, in part to avoid conflicts. New and yet-to-be invented technologies will surely be helpful. But there is also a growing need for fundamental changes to the ways people work and how we consume goods and services to reduce greenhouse gases and protect (if not restore) ecosystem and biodiversity — the natural resources that give life, health, and prosperity to humans. Undesirable changes to the environment could accelerate in coming years, necessitating an all-hands-on-deck response by business leaders, political leaders, and society to preserve and care for Earth and her resources.
The passing of time, experience, and facts prove that we, collectively, were wrong to think of Lean management as a replacement for classical management on a widespread basis given that there are many ways to win in business. The upcoming challenges may or may not reduce the number of ways to win. Either way, there is ample room for the foundational elements of progressive management in any management system because they are helpful.