Misaligned Expectations

Of the few hundred thousand people worldwide who have technically and emotionally bonded with Lean management over the last 36 years, the vast majority surely are disappointed, to greater or lesser extents, due to misaligned expectations.

Lean professionals’ cause, at first, seemed both righteous and straightforward. And they probably thought that the logic and sensibility of Lean management sold itself to senior leaders just as it did to them.

They thought they could drive change that would replace archaic systems of leadership and management with modern progressive systems that improved every aspect of business. They thought that their intelligence, time, effort, and dedication to the company would make business much better for the next generation of employees, from CEO to the shop and office floor, customers, and other stakeholders.

But then reality soon set in. What most leaders said they wanted differed substantially from what they actually wanted. CEOs said they wanted Lean, but what they really wanted was marginal improvement in several key business metrics, most of which were tied to executive compensation via the stock price. They wanted employees lower in the hierarchy to achieve this by using some popular “Lean tools” to solve the recurring problems that impaired business metrics. But for the top leadership team it would be business as usual.

Beavis and Butt Head
Click here to learn more about the famous American teenage duo, Beavis and Butt-Head (especially minute 12:15 to 13:19 😂).

The gap between what leaders said and what they wanted led to immense consternation among Lean professionals. But the surprises would not end there. Soon Lean professionals would find, often suddenly, that the boss was not serious about Lean transformation. And then they would find, often suddenly as well, that the boss was not serious about “Respect for People.” And then, for some, their jobs were the first to go when the CEO announced layoffs. No doubt each of these felt like a swift kick in the nuts.

Through it all, most Lean professionals did not give up. They persevered. They had a job doing the kind of work they liked and that could lead to some positive change. But, most Lean professionals found it very difficult to pursue their dream. They would have to do what the boss wanted. And what the boss wanted most was small improvements made within the existing system of management. It was a contradictory message of: “Go ahead and make changes. But not too many changes, and don’t make too much change. Oh, and don’t change too fast.

The existence of Lean is a happy story to some and a sad story to others. It is a happy story in that Lean, a Western interpretation of Toyota’s management system, has become commonplace in business. It is a happy story in terms of the creation of a new class of jobs as well as the business of selling Lean management, if mainly only for “Lean tools.”

It is a sad story in that what is commonplace in business, after all these years, is “Lean tools,” and only rarely have so-called “Lean transformations” been achieved to produce Toyota-like management systems. It is sad that so many people have put so much dedicated effort into changing management thinking and practice with so little in the way of big results.

Lean movement leaders and Lean pros have long been aligned in the view that companies are unique and that Lean must be tailored to each company and culture. This is said to be a key part in the formula for success, and when failure occurs it is due to inattention to adaptation to unique circumstances.

But, in reality, there are far more similarities than differences between companies. Adaptation to the company and culture has more to do with gaining buy-in for significant change rather than any major differences among companies. Adaptation makes you feel like it is yours, like you own it, rather than just doing what some famous company in a different industry does.

But what truly is unique, and far more important to understand in terms of causality, is the Institution of Leadership and System of Profound Privilege, for that is what blocks significant changes in leadership and management practice. So, rather than worry about companies being unique and that Lean must be tailored to each company and culture, worry instead about the Institution of Leadership and System of Profound Privilege. That is the cause and therefore the realm to explore for countermeasures.

What are some lessons learned that can help current and future Lean professionals avoid getting kicked in the nuts? How can one ensure that their expectations are aligned with the reality that exists in most organizations, while still having a goal of making significant change? Here are the most important lessons:

You might think these lessons are new, but they are not new. They are the same lessons that the Scientific Management community learned over 100 years ago. Lean management itself, the Lean movement, Lean community’s goals, and your personal goals are significantly weakened by not realizing, or not accepting, that.

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