The Case Against Lean

Everyone in the Lean community knows the case for Lean management. Most of my books and research papers strongly support the case for Lean, based on the facts. But, as Art Byrne says: “about 95 percent of all lean conversions fail.” Why is that? And why aren’t most CEOs interested in Lean? It’s because CEOs make a powerful case against Lean management, every single day, which few in the Lean community know. This raises the question: How can Lean management be advanced if people have no real knowledge of why most CEOs are not interested in it? The empirical evidence amassed over the last three decades, exposed by the low number of Lean transformations worldwide, has revealed great weaknesses in understanding leadership and, to a surprising extent, business.

CEOs are not bad or stupid people (though, like any population, statistically some are). When faced with a choice between the status quo, classical management, and progressive, Lean management, they almost always choose the former. In doing so, they are making a business decision. It is a rational choice, made to preserve certain important moral principles and shared values. Yet, in my estimation, few in the Lean community respect that. Based on all the facts, I do not agree with CEOs’ choice to remain committed to classical management, but I accept it and I respect it. That should be no surprise anyone. After all, the “institution of leadership” and classical management, in the past, seem to have done more good than harm. The future? That is a different problem.

What is the CEOs case against Lean management? That is what I have ventured to uncover over the last 13 years. Talking to CEOs will not do because it induces anchoring biases that shroud the truth. Instead, one must closely observe their actions — the CEOs genba. The three books and one paper shown below together present the case that CEOs make against Lean. In these works, you will find a dispassionate presentation of the facts, discomforting as they are, that describe the lay of the leadership land. If, by chance, I inadvertently criticize leaders, then these are merely suggestions for improvement. The reality, of course, is that were we in CEOs shoes, nearly all of us would conform to the highly developed institution of leadership and time-honored traditions of classical management.


The powerful, multifaceted case that CEOs make against Lean is fascinating. My written works document these arguments. They are so powerful that you may lose all hope for Lean. Sadly, Lean may never be anything greater than what it has already been. But is that bad? No, because these writings will test the vast range of your preconceptions and confirmation biases and inspire you to think. Much good usually comes from that in the form of needed changes and adjustments. 

Lean has a better chance of advancing if the comprehensive case that CEOs make against it is carefully understood. Are you open to other viewpoints and new evidence that might persuade you to think differently; to revise and refine your views? If you want Lean to be more widely accepted, then it is necessary to understand alternate ideas — the habits of thought and action of CEOs, and why they think it is imperative to preserve the status quo.

Today, the Lean movement suffers from an orthodoxy and groupthink that feeds prejudices and strengthens confirmation bias. These twin Lean diseases are likely a death sentence for Lean. Lean people know one truth and would benefit by learning the truth about the institution of leadership and classical management. The need is to think, to understand, compare and contrast; to critique these two truths. They represent a great diversity of viewpoints across numerous domains important to humanity: economic, social, political, historical, philosophical, business, legal, and spiritual. 

Lean No1

Take a simple example: CEOs’ tradition to separate strategy and execution (or decision-making from implementation). In the book The Lean Strategy, Ballé et al., make the case that leaders should not separate strategy and execution. Lean people unconditionally accept their argument. Yet the authors offer no understanding of the manifold deep reasons why most CEOs think (know) it is entirely correct for them to separate strategy and execution. What we have, then, is merely a plea for CEOs to stop doing something that Lean people think is wrong for them to do — which most CEOs will reject without even thinking. Lean cannot be effectively “sold” on the basis of ignoring the institution of leadership and the practice of classical management, and what they both accomplish and for whom. There is a long and reasoned history of their development which CEOs will not cavalierly toss aside for the promise of Lean management, regardless of the positive proof that anyone has to offer.

The formidable case that CEO make against Lean is worth learning. From that learning may come the leadership revolution so desired by the Lean community.

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