We Succeed When We All Agree?

In my decades of analyzing Lean management and the Lean movement, I often discover important problems and, being a university professor, I share my findings with others. My findings are more warmly received by Lean practitioners than my peer group of Lean movement leaders. Why is that? It seems there is a perceived need for consensus; that we, the Lean “influencers,” should be aligned and speak with a single voice about the merits of Lean management and the Lean movement. To do otherwise would reveal weakness in the eyes of decision-makers (CEOs and presidents) who might adopt Lean to replace their current (classical) management practice.

The need for agreement is based on a mental model that agreement strengthens the body of evidence favorable to Lean, while disagreement in the form of questions and criticisms weaken and impair the evidence. Questions and criticisms are taken to be impious and rarely seen as opportunities for improvement. In scientific inquiry, there is no pressure to achieve agreement. In fact, disagreement is preferred because it advances knowledge and learning. But Lean is a business and it is about business, and we all know that questions and criticisms of business, its leaders, or its methods are often met with strong disapproval. Analysis of Lean management and the Lean movement is not taken as a scientific inquiry in pursuit of the truth. Instead, it is taken as apostasy.

Consensus understanding of Lean management and the Lean movement as nothing but positive is seen as good for one’s reputation and strengthens one’s credibility. But this misrepresents the truth and downplays a multitude of known problems and risks. The positive stories about Lean outnumber the stories of struggle and failure by an order of magnitude. Conservatism in Lean means to promote the success of progressive management and ignore, as much as possible, the struggles and failures and, especially, their causes.

Consensus is not the goal. If it is, then the goal of advancing Lean management is surely undermined. The requirement for consensus results in an uwillingness, or substantial delays, in addressing known problems and an aversion to engaging people whose views are heterodox or controversial. As time goes by, consensus as a goal has proved to be well-meaning but unwise. And it has led many influencers to suggest, implicitly or explicitly, that people should not question or criticize the work of persons with expertise in specific knowledge areas.

This reflects two common errors in thinking. The first is authority bias, a cognitive bias that “attribute[s] greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure… and be more influenced by that opinion.” The second is a fallacious argument known as “appeal to accomplishment.” You would know it as “You can’t criticize the CEO because you have never been a CEO.” The absurdity of this is evident by considering this: Do you need to make movies to be a movie critic? Do you need to build a house to critique its layout? The next step in bad thinking might be that we must wear badges to identify our area(s) of expertise so that people know, at a glance, who to listen to and who to ignore. This degradation of thinking does the Lean movement no favors.

Badges to identify expertise in classical management, Lean management, and TPS.

There is zero evidence that agreement among the influencers about Lean management or the Lean movement will produce the desired success. In fact, my book, The Triumph of Classical Management Over Lean Management: How Tradition Prevails and What to Do About It, proves that agreement among influencers has no bearing on the success of the Lean movement or the adoption of Lean management by CEOs.

The Lean movement has long been plagued by systematic bias in overestimating the uptake of Lean by business leaders. The thought of widespread abandonment of classical management by business leaders was an irrational expectation. What is happening now is what has happened in the past; classical management is slightly modified, incorporating certain new ideas and tools, instead of being abandoned and replaced with a better management system. This outcome should have been considered near the start of Lean in 1988, given the centuries-long success of classical management. The preference of management practice is socially, not logically, determined. Those highest in the social hierarchy and most distant from the work, CEOs and presidents, decide the thinking and management system that best suits their needs. Top management’s conspicuous absence from the workplace is a feature of classical management because improves the efficiency of their work.

The key to advancing Lean management lies in thoroughly understanding its formidable competitor, classical management, and the institution of leadership. Agreement among influencers on these two points is more important and more useful than agreement on anything having to do with Lean.

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