The Language of Lean


A little-noticed problem in Lean transformations is that senior managers keep using the language of conventional management, which inadvertently undercuts Lean efforts. So, not only does Lean require a different way of thinking and doing things, it also requires a different way of talking too. Leaders must abandon their verbal (as well as non-verbal) preconceptions.

For example:

  • In nearly every case when leaders say “maximize” or “optimize,” they should say “continuously improve.”
  • Never say “winning” or “number one,” because these suggest zero-sum (win-lose) outcomes are acceptable. It also suggests an end-point can be achieved and is therefore anti continuous improvement.
  • Never say “data-driven.” In Lean, we are “fact based,” which means we pay attention to both quantitative and qualitative information.
  • Never say “best practices” because it suggests there is one best way to do something and is therefore anti-continuous improvement. Also, the practice is usually extracted from the context in which it functions successfully. Instead say “how can this practice be improved?”
  • Never say “answer” or “solution” because it limits how much people with think or how far people will go to explore possibilities. It implies one answer when there may be many answers (or options). Bosses that think there is only one answer or solution restrain people’s creativity and undercuts their desire to continuously improve.

Can you think of why Lean leaders should almost never say: “sustainable,” incentivize,” “synergy,” “scale/scalable,” or  “project?” Can you think of other examples?

Cliches are another problem. For example:

  • Never say “play the game” or “game of business” because business is not a game. People’s lives depend on it. Gamification of business leaders people towards zero-sum outcomes, which are inconsistent with the “Respect for People” principle.
  • Never say “failure is not a option” or “flawless execution.” Why? For several reasons: It’s not reality, it shuts down the desire to experiment or try new things; it shuts down learning; it compels people to study things to death and thus slows things down; it creates a risk-averse culture; it corrupts kaizen, etc.
  • Never say “we must stick to our core competencies.” This is simply an excuse to accept that certain types of work are done poorly and for not understanding work processes or how to improve them. It also undercuts teamwork by praising those associated with core competencies (e.g. engineers, finance) and penalizing those who are not (operations, purchasing, human resources, etc.).
  • Never say “we need quick wins” because of its association with the deeply embedded “focus on results” mentality (which is what led to processes being out of control in the first place). Instead say “we need kaizen” and “let’s be sure we are focused on both process and results.”
  • Never say “we need to monetize this product or service.” Instead say “we need to improve the value that we provide to our customers.”

Can you think of why leaders should never say: “we’re in a low margin business,” “what gets measured gets managed,” “change or die,” “I’m going to hold you accountable,”or “this product or service is a cash cow?” Can you think of other examples?

Overall, I find that leaders who have spent decades practicing conventional management have developed a vocabulary that slows down, if not demonstrably damages, the Lean transformation. So, in addition to the challenge of learning new ways of thinking and doing things, leaders have abandon verbal preconceptions and learn a different way of talking.

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