What is Lean’s Future?

Future Crystal Ball

COVID-19, like all emergencies, commands people to focus on shrinking the time from order to delivery. People quickly remove all the barriers to getting the job done. They eliminate bad processes and steps in processes and get rid of queue time to get material and information to flow. And we see many inspiring examples wonderful creativity and true teamwork. That is the way people in a Lean company do business every day, emergency or not.

But when an emergency is over, the leaders of classically managed company retreat to what they are most familiar with before the onset of the emergency. Barriers — bad processes, new steps added to processes, and queue time — soon creep back in because that is what leaders demand, as well as accountants, to assure financial and related management controls. To company leaders, the tangible and imagined sense of control that they seek are more important than all the barriers that they place on processes and people, especially employees. Creativity, teamwork, and flow evaporate.

In a recent eLetter, James Womack ended by saying: “And the world then will need our help more than ever” when the pandemic is over. What is the supporting evidence for this claim? Or, does it merely reflect hope? Will the world need “help more than ever” from the Lean Enterprise Institute and other organizations like them? Help from Lean advocates? Help from Lean practitioners? We know from experience that, overall, the world pre-COVID-19 had little use for Lean management, and when companies did it was mostly Fake Lean (and the immense, disrespectful pressure executives put on Lean people for obviously unachievable business results). Will a post-COVID-19 world be so different that the clamoring for a return to business as usual will be upended? It might.

Then again, it might not. In fact, there is a good chance it won’t. Right now, executives are figuring out how the business can be run with fewer people in the future so that it is less crippled when a health or other crisis emerges. They are saying, “Look what happens to the business when employees get sick” and asking, “Do we need so many people?” Top leaders, of course, have never been fond of labor, and they are always in search of technologies that replace labor. They are ready buyers, even if the technology is expensive, over-promises, and under-delivers. This and related ways of thinking have been deeply ingrained among business leaders over hundreds of years. If a company hires someone for $50,000 per year, they now have an expense of $50,000 per year. If a company buys a robot for $50,000, then they have added to the value of the business about $50,000. Since leaders are always looking to increase the value of the enterprise, to them it makes more sense to buy robots, AI software, and other technologies than to hire people. That view will not change post-COVID-19. I expect it will greatly accelerate digitization of business processes and the purchase of labor-saving technologies, and thus further compound the huge unemployment problem created by COVID-19.

So for the year or so that it may take to find a COVID-19 vaccine, unemployment will be incredibly high and remain high for many years thereafter. As time passes, private industry will have less and less need for employees as they invest in labor-saving technologies — except, perhaps, less so for those employers that require people for touch labor such as government-funded infrastructure projects — of which there is a great need.


COVID-19 should be the greatest opportunity in 100 years to finally get rid of the many bad economic and business ideas that have been with us for centuries, eliminate processes, improve other processes, develop people, and so on. It is a rare opportunity to humanize economics and management, do good things for the planet, and to re-connect with that which is moral and ethical. Hopefully this tragic pandemic will weaken the status quo sufficiently to give way to human needs as the first priority. Yet, I think most top leaders will remain so stuck in the status quo that they will not realize this opportunity, or they will realize it in ways that compel them to extend or strengthen the status quo that they like and are most familiar with. To learn why, go see. Read the three books shown at right.

I expect Lean management will remain relevant post-COVID-19, but on a smaller base of interest among people and corporations. Top business leaders’ interests always lie elsewhere. As far as I can tell, no Fortune Global 1000 CEO in the U.S., Europe, Asia, or elsewhere has sung the praises of Lean or JIT as the pandemic spreads and severely disrupts both supply and demand. Lean remains off most leader’s radar screen. Furthermore, no team of big-name Lean people has ever engaged the public at-large to make the case that Lean should replace classical management. Talking to one another is necessary but insufficient. The public needs to know that a better system of management exists and that business leaders will end their insistence on classical management and Fake Lean.

It seems Lean’s future has now been dimmed and conditions are not favorable for its future growth on a larger scale. I hope I am wrong, but there is ample evidence in support of this conclusion (the three books). Where is the evidence to the contrary? Despite this, we will, jointly and severally, do our best to keep it going.

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