What Went Wrong?

plan-doNearly 30 years after the start of the Lean movement, there is widespread agreement that things have not gone according to plan. Of course, there have been some notable successes (particularly those who worked with Shingijutsu), yet they are far fewer in number than anyone expected given the wide-ranging benefits of Lean management to all stakeholders. I have previously commented on the strategic errors that were made, but I’d like to expand upon that here.

This is not criticism resulting from hindsight – far from it. What happened could be seen and understood in real-time or after short delays of one to three years. These are the miscalculations that I observed:

  • The strength to which people are attracted to tools to improve their existing management practices, and, conversely, the near-total lack of interest in a completely new system of management. Thus, Lean tools that are peripheral to core industrial engineering methods used in kaizen became very popular. This includes 5S, visual controls, value stream maps, A3 reports, and gemba walks.
  • Waiting 20 years, until 2007, to transition from Lean production to Lean management, and with a new focus on Lean leadership (outcomes of LEIs 10th anniversary celebration).
  • Waiting until 2007 to explicitly recognize and until 2014 to aggressively promote the “Respect for People” principle, when its importance was apparent decades earlier – both at Toyota and in the days Scientific Management 100 years ago. The many layoffs that came as a result of Lean are a tragedy and its most obvious and regrettable failure.
  • Judging the history of Scientific Management to be irrelevant, and therefore useless to learn from to address current-day problems regarding the acceptance and advancement of progressive Lean management. As a result, we are witness to a history that has now repeated itself.
  • Not emphasizing flow, and the inseparable connection between it, kaizen, and the “Respect for People” principle.
  • Vastly overestimating the extent to which conservative business leaders might be interested in a progressive system of management, the extent of their curiosity, and the extent of their interest in improving their leadership behaviors and competencies.
  • Overestimating the extent to which people in top leadership positions care about people. If Lean is, as some say, “all about people,” then it is clear that most leaders don’t care about people, particularly when the distance between them and the shop or office floor, both physically or in rank, is great.
  • Promoting wealth creation instead of humbler, more basic, aspirations and outcomes; the kind of positive results that everyone wants to experience, such as process simplification, made possible by human creativity and innovative ideas in a fun and non-threatening work environment.
  • Overconfidence on the part of the those who study the Toyota to think that they could understand it, and hence lead others, without ever actually creating, with their own hands, a functioning flowline in an industrial setting. That they would become the arbiters of Lean thought and practice is remarkable. The unwillingness of people to challenge them made matters worse.

It is apparent that the Lean movement did the Plan-Do, but it did not do the Check-Act. The lack of timely problem recognition and corrective action stands out, in my view, as a major error that compounded the impacts of these miscalculations.

As a result of strategic errors and miscalculations, there exists deeply-rooted negative associations of Lean to things like layoffs, (Fake) Taylorism, and bureaucratic (check-the-box) Lean. We should expect Lean to have limited appeal going forward, thus making our job a little harder.

These are perils of outsourcing our thinking to establishment leaders. Instead, we must think for ourselves and figure out what to do, with guidance from the originals. In my view, the way forward includes a renewed focus on kaizenflow, and Lean leadership. Lean management is an innovation of strategic significance, which will, in time, become more widely embraced because it can help humanity. So we must face our challenges and persevere.

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