Sustaining Lean

Let’s assume that we are now experiencing peak interest in Lean management, and that we will face declining future interest in Lean – principally driven by the prevalence of Fake Lean and of crazy, complex, and confusing combinations like “Lean Six Sigma” (as six sigma fades, Lean becomes a helpful façade), Agile, AgileLean, etc. Declining interest in Lean presents us with two challenges:

  • Sustaining Lean in organizations
  • Sustaining the Lean movement

In May 2008, I wrote the book REAL LEAN: The Keys to Sustaining Lean Management (Volume Three). Most of the book’s 150 pages addressed how to sustain Lean in organizations (you should read it). But, Chapter 7 discussed some ideas on how to sustain the Lean movement. I’d like to share with you an extended excerpt from that chapter:

“The historical record with respect to the successful advancement of new management systems is poor. This book has highlighted and analyzed the deeper reasons why executives do not rush to a new management system despite its obvious financial, non-financial, and human benefits. This should give the leaders of the Lean management movement much to think about in terms of the strategies and tactics they have used to advance Lean management.

Most books and articles on Scientific Management written 75 or 100 years ago sound so fresh, as if they were written today. It appears we are heading on the same path of putting in a tremendous amount of effort with a high probability of having little success…

Figure 7-1 summarizes some of the similarities and differences in how the Scientific Management community tried to advance their management system compared to how the Lean management community is trying to advance its management system, as well as some outcomes… the strategies and tactics in use today are largely the same as those used by Scientific Management system advocates in the early 1900s. Yes, there are some important differences, but it is difficult to say if any will initiate a tipping point for Lean management or if they will be inconsequential.

figure7-1We always have to worry about flavor-of-the-month hungry executives, fixated on the short-term and addicted to shortcuts. Consultants will take advantage of these enduring weaknesses to sell executives the next new thing… The marketplace will always produce customers who want inferior, low-fidelity versions of Lean management. And the marketplace will always produce consultants who will gladly respond to that customer’s pull and seek to satisfy their demand. Nothing can be done about that.

A way forward that may have great impact would be to explain to executives how it is impossible to be ethical operating a zero-sum management system stuffed with shortcuts, and that batch-and-queue processing has many unethical features embedded within it (e.g. waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness) that suggest its abandonment would be a wise course of action.”

The last paragraph is key in that t re-frames Lean – REAL Lean (not Fake Lean or Lean sigma) – as a more ethical management system (see REAL LEAN: Learning the Craft of Lean Management  (Volume 4), Chapter 9, “The Ethical Management System”). We have our work cut out for us. If we are at peak Lean, we need to be imaginative and creative to help Lean survive and avoid the fate of Scientific Management where only certain elements of it (i.e. tools) were subsumed into conventional, zero-sum management practice. The same thing is happening to Lean, as companies cherry-pick tools such as 5S, value stream maps, A3 reports, gemba walks, etc.

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