What is Lean Management?

Mental Revolution 1 1

What is Lean management? Many people offer definitions, but efforts to define it, while well-meaning, serve only to disable people’s ability to understand it which, in turn, impairs their ability to practice it (the same is true for the “Respect for People” principle). Isn’t it odd that definitions of Lean, whose intent is to clarify, compel people to think less about what Lean management actually is?

To understand Lean management, one must first travel back in time. Scientific management is the predecessor upon which Lean management is built, and the origin of industrial engineering methods that were critical to the development of Toyota’s production system. Scientific Management was immediately and widely misunderstood by both managers in industry and the public, despite the definitions provided. Unfortunately, we face this same difficulty with Lean management.

In his 1911 book, The Principles of Scientific Management, Frederick Winslow Taylor said:

“…scientific management consists in a complete revolution in the mental attitude and the habits of all of those engaged in the management, as well of the workmen.” (page 131)

Taylor means a complete change in mental attitude; a complete change in viewpoint and understanding of all things related to business, management, work, and people. The same is true for Lean management, is it not?

In testimony to a subcommittee of the U.S. Congress on January 1912, Taylor said:

“Scientific management is not any efficiency device, not a device of any kind for securing efficiency; nor is it any bunch or group of efficiency devices. It is not a new system of figuring costs; it is not a new scheme of paying men; it is not a piecework system; it is not a bonus system; it is not a premium system; it is no scheme for paying men; it is not holding a stop watch on a man and writing things down about him; it is not time study; it is not motion study nor an analysis of the movements of men; it is not the printing and ruling and unloading of a ton or two of blanks on a set of men and saying, ‘Here’s your system; go use it.’ It is not divided foremanship or functional foremanship; it is not any of the devices which the average man calls to mind when scientific management is spoken of. The average man thinks of one or more of these things when he hears the words ‘scientific management’ mentioned, but scientific management is not any of these devices. I am not sneering at cost-keeping systems, at time study, at functional foremanship, nor at any new and improved scheme of paying men, nor at any efficiency devices, if they are really devices that make for efficiency. I believe in them; but what I am emphasizing is that these devices in whole or in part are not scientific management; they are useful adjuncts to scientific management, so are they also useful adjuncts of other systems of management.” (p. 1387)

Is it not also true that A3 reports, value stream maps, and all the other tools and methods are likewise useful adjuncts to Lean management or other systems of management? Taylor continues:

“Now, in its essence, scientific management involves a complete mental revolution on the part of the workingman engaged in any particular establishment or industry—a complete mental revolution on the part of these men as to their duties toward their work, toward their fellow men, and toward their employers. And it involves the equally complete mental revolution on the part of those on the management’s side—the foreman, the superintendent, the owner of the business, the board of directors—a complete mental revolution on their part as to their duties toward their fellow workers in the management, toward their workmen, and toward all of their daily problems. And without this complete mental revolution on both sides scientific management does not exist. That is the essence of scientific management, this great mental revolution… involve[s] an immense change in the minds and attitude of both sides…” (p. 1387)

“The essence of it is this new state of mind.” (p.1491)

The emphasis Taylor places on scientific management being a “mental revolution” aligns with Taiichi Ohno’s thinking. In his book Toyota Production System (1978 in Japanese, 1988 in English) the last section of Chapter 1 is titled: “A Revolution in Consciousness is Indispensable.” While the revolution in consciousness that Taylor and Ohno both referred to were different in the detail, at a higher level they were coincident: science and experiments (facts) replacing opinions, efficiency, synchronization, cooperation, shared interests between management and workers, growth (not layoffs), and better outcomes for all.

On page 73 of Toyota Production System, Ohno says:

“The Toyota production system represents a revolution in thinking. Because it requires us to change our way of thinking in fundamental ways, I hear strong support as well as strong criticism. I find that the cause of such criticism is insufficient understanding of what the system is.”

Again, the new way of thinking is what matters most. The methods and tools are not the new way of thinking; they support the new way of thinking.

In a paper titled “The Spirit and Social Significance of Scientific Management” (1913), one of Taylor’s contemporaries, Morris Cooke, described Scientific Management this way:

“Scientific management has nothing to sell. Scientific management is not something which can be bought in a box. It is not something in the nature of a drug that one takes, and feels better. It is not a card index. It is dependent upon no single mechanism. Nor is it a combination of any number of mechanisms. It is not a system of keeping costs, as our friends in the printing industry sometimes think. Nor is it a method of paying wages, as members of the engineering profession have sometimes held.” (p. 481)

“I have said that scientific management is not something that can be bought in a box. Nor can you lay it on like a suit of clothes. You do not ‘get it’ as we are told one gets certain varieties of religious experience. The truth of the matter is that scientific management gets you. If one could casually introduce scientific management in an establishment, much as one would introduce a system of bookkeeping, it would hardly warrant our giving it very much attention. Scientific management can be developed in any group of people only through a course of individual and collective discipline that must last over a long period of years.” (p. 493)

Too many leaders think Lean management can be bought in a box. Is it not also true that you do not get Lean management, but that Lean management gets you? Science applied to business problems gets you, you cannot get it. Experimentation on-the-job to gain new insights and learn new things gets you. You cannot get it.

This “mental revolution” and “new state of mind” is troublesome to managers. It does not sit well with the old management mindset that existed with managers then and which exists with managers now. Because of this, they are difficult to bring around. In his testimony to Congress, Taylor said:

“…nine-tenths of the trouble with those of us who have been engaged in helping people to change from the older type of management to the new management—that is, to scientific management—that nine-tenths of our trouble has been to ‘bring’ those on the management’s side to do their fair share of the work and only one-tenth of our trouble has come on the workman’s side. Invariably we find very great opposition on the part of those on the management’s side to do their new duties and comparatively little opposition on the part of the workmen to cooperate in doing their new duties.” (p. 1395)

Is it not true that today, that we have more trouble with management than we have with the workers?

The nature of both Lean management and Scientific Management as comprehensive systems of management also does not sit well with the old management mindset, whether then or now. In a book titled Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management and the Progressive Era 1890-1920 (1964), Professor Samuel Haber says the following about the preference among business leaders for only limited adjustments to their existing management practice:

“The very notion of a completely integrated, scientific system for the factory was a distraction [to businessmen]. The truly ‘scientific’ standard for ‘an honest day’s work’… could not be established and maintained unless the entire factory was systematized. Yet most business firms, as Taylor himself once noted, need only be more efficient than their competitors. This was one of the reasons that businessmen preferred efficiency stunts, devices, and mechanisms to a complete system of scientific management. The adoption of a complete system was often not the most profitable use of investment capital. Here… commercial efficiency did not automatically come first. The system should be adopted, Taylor’s most orthodox disciples asserted, even when it might not be a paying investment.” (pp. 16-17)

Haven’t we long experienced the same difficulty with business leaders?

If there is one thing Lean advocates need to understand about business leaders, it is that efficiency (improvement) does not automatically come first. Their view, the old management mindset, of improvement is promiscuous. Their relationship with different improvement tools and methods is indiscriminate and one of convenience, to satisfy a financial itch that comes and goes with the business cycle or the sales cycle. Unlike Ohno’s most orthodox disciples, top managers do not need to adopt the full system to be satisfied.

So, then, what is Lean management? It is a “mental revolution,” a “revolution in consciousness,” a “revolution in thinking,” a “new state of mind.” Lean management gets you when you bring the principles and laws of science to management throughout an organization, for the betterment of humanity. If business leaders agree that survival of the organization is one of their most important duties, then the old management system must give way to the new. A “mental revolution” should be more attractive to them to than endless promiscuity. The former uplifts humanity, while the latter periodically leads to life-threatening business ailments.

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